Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Voter groups deserve attorneys fees in Fair Districts case ... by gimleteye

Legislatures do perform illegal acts. When they do it is incumbent on citizens to litigate against those legislatures through the courts. Today the case of Fair Districts stands front and center -- the historic effort led by Miamian Ellen Freiden to reverse gerrymandered districts in Florida by the GOP -- it is far, far from the only case.

In the past twenty five years, I've been involved in many skirmishes that sought to hold legislatures -- like the Miami-Dade County Commission and the Florida legislature, not to mention local, state and federal agencies -- accountable to state and federal law.

I am going to spend the entire day, today, as the only unpaid plaintiff from the "public" in a federal court mediation on the particulars of an Everglades case where $880 million was determined to be the "fair and equitable" settlement framework for clean water in the future, as measured by at least another decade.

A federal court agreed with us that the Florida legislature, under instructions from then Gov. Jeb Bush, violated federal law when it passed a 2003 law to protect Big Sugar's right to pollute the Everglades.  Our attorneys still have not received a dime, because the defendants -- the state and Big Sugar -- are still contesting the federal court decision even though Gov. Rick Scott declared "victory" two years ago.

It is not right in the case of attorneys like Richard Grosso, the former director of the Everglades Law Center. Mr. Grosso was not only the most effective defender of growth management laws in the state, but also one who was unable to collect attorney's fees when he prevailed in defending the public interest. (Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP legislature solved that problem when they finally killed off growth management law in Florida, the same way mosquito control boards spray for mosquitoes.)

It is primarily a Republican ethos to bitterly complain about the litigious nature of American society, but shouldn't the public be protected when GOP or Democratic legislators break the law? Yes, the attorneys should be paid when they prevail. Instead, in the case of state law, the scales have tipped backwards the other way, often requiring plaintiffs to pay if they lose.

This would be a simple problem to solve if it were addressed as a moral matter.

Not only should lawyers be paid in cases like Fair District, but a fair and equitable society would figure out a way to pay defenders of the public interest during the course of litigation. Think about it.

Government -- read the Republican legislature in the Fair District case -- spent many millions of taxpayer money. Corporations who intervene to oppose the public spend pre-tax income to compensate its squadrons of attorneys -- who are often paid double or triple the rates of government attorneys.

Through the course of my thirty years as a civic activist, if I made a commission from all the fees generated for lobbyists, consultants, and attorneys I'd helped to generate, by trying to get government to follow its own laws, I'd be wealthy. But I would happier if those consultants, lobbyists and lawyers paid through a licensing fee into a pool that public interest attorneys could access, and when attorneys who represented the public interest prevail in state and federal court just got paid competitively and in a timely manner. Period. Were this the case, ours would be a better state and a better nation.

Editorial: Voter groups deserve attorney fees in redistricting case
Palm Beach Post
Friday, April 1, 2016

Someone has to protect Florida voters when their lawmakers won’t. That fact seems to have been lost on the state’s courts.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday denied voters rights groups’ request to recoup their legal fees after winning a six-year battle against the Florida Legislature over gerrymandered Congressional districts. That followed a similar action by a three-judge panel of the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal on March 24, which rejected an attempt by the same groups.

The decisions are a mistake, both morally and common-sensibly. The courts should recognize the “private attorney general” doctrine that allows private parties to collect legal fees in public-interest lawsuits that successfully challenge alleged state misconduct.

The only option remaining now is for the Legislature to pass such a law; which is unlikely.

Remember, this entire mess stems from the failure of the Republican-dominated Legislature to draw congressional districts that do not favor incumbents or political parties. When tasked in 2012 by Florida voters through a pair of constitutional amendments to draw fair districts, our elected officials failed miserably.

As a result, lawsuits were brought for both congressional and state Senate districts, and the results are disturbing. In one suit, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found – and many observers could plainly see – that the districts unfairly favored Republicans.

That was only the beginning. As the Legislature strung out the lengthy and costly legal fight over the districts, the people of Florida learned just how dishonest the process had been. Disclosed emails revealed that party operatives had manipulated the drawing of the districts by offering partisan plans through allegedly nonpartisan third-party sources. So ugly were the shenanigans that Judge Lewis concluded that the officials “managed to taint the redistricting process.”

They likely would have gotten away with it too. After all, the Legislature was not about to own up to its malfeasance unless forced by someone. And unfortunately, that someone was not Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who took no action to enforce the fair-district requirements, and allowed the Legislature carte blanche to draw partisan districts.

It took a coalition of groups led in part by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause to force redress. These groups stood up for all Floridians when they challenged the Legislature, and ultimately brought about districts that allow more Floridians to have a voice in government. But lawsuits holding the government accountable are not inexpensive, and public interest groups do not have a state government’s deep pockets.

Bottom line: Without financial support to bring these actions, they are less likely to happen.

Opponents argue that awarding attorney’s fees and costs to outside groups will lead to frivolous suits against the government. We disagree. The groups will only be able to obtain reasonable fees if they win the lawsuit.

Helping them defray the cost seems a small price to pay for the vindication of the rights that all Floridians would lose in the absence of a vigilant watchdog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What better way to keep environmentalists from fighting than not pay their attorneys.