A judge in Washington said today he wants the three law firms that provided pro bono service to the District of Columbia in the landmark gun rights case to open up their books to provide billing data to the court.
Judge Emmet Sullivan of Washington's federal trial court is trying to determine a fair and reasonable fee for the plaintiffs’ team that represented a group of District residents, including Dick Heller, in the suit in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 overturned the city’s ban on handguns.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by Alan Gura of Alexandria, Va.’s Gura & Possessky, said a review of the records will undercut the government’s argument that the plaintiffs’ petition for more than $3.1 million in fees is unreasonable.
Sullivan said today in court he’s spent a “great deal” of time reviewing the fee petition and has struggled over assessment of the prevailing market rate for complex civil litigation. Last year, Sullivan denied without prejudice Gura’s request to inspect the records. Sullivan reversed course today, saying the records, while perhaps not dispositive, will aid his work.
Three firms—O’Melveny & Myers, Covington & Burling and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld—provided pro bono work for the District in the litigation. O’Melveny partner Walter Dellinger III argued for the District in the high court. A fourth firm, Sidley Austin, quickly dropped out before any work was initiated, a District lawyer, Samuel Kaplan, said at today’s hearing.
Sullivan said he wants to avoid “full-blown litigation” over the three firms’ billing records, and he said he’s not interested in having names attached with the financial data. “Anonymity is fine with the court,” Sullivan said. “I do not need initials. I don’t need names.”
The judge also said he is hopeful he will not have to authorize subpoenas to compel Covington, Akin and O’Melveny to provide the standard billing rates for the lawyers who worked on the gun case for the District.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Sullivan said. “But if it does, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Kaplan cautioned that O’Melveny’s rates vary per client and case and that a “standard rate” for any lawyer on the gun case may not be helpful to Sullivan. The District, Kaplan said, is concerned about what he called the “intrusive” nature of the request for billing rates from the three firms.
Kaplan said the city only accepted help from O’Melveny, Covington and Akin because it was free. Otherwise, he said, the District’s lawyers—he mentioned Todd Kim, the District’s solicitor general, in particular—would have worked on the case in the Supreme Court.
“The city was very fortunate to get outstanding lawyers from outstanding firms,” Sullivan said in court today.
At the end of the hearing, Sullivan asked the lawyers to get him the data in 10 days. Sullivan said he wants to resolve the fee dispute as soon as possible.