The lawyers who successfully challenged the Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year are seeking $2 million in legal fees from the federal government.
U.S. Department of Justice lawyers and attorneys from Wiley Rein, who represented Shelby County, Ala., in the voting rights dispute, are expected to fight over two issues: whether the challengers are entitled to fees in the first place and whether $2 million is too much.
The fee request "appears to present novel legal issues," the attorneys in the case said in a Nov. 4 court filing. The government and civil rights groups involved in the litigation plan to oppose the fee request. U.S. District Judge John Bates will first decide whether Shelby County's lawyers are entitled to fees before looking at how much compensation is appropriate.
In June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the voting rights law, which laid out the formula used to decide which states and jurisdictions should have to take special steps before making changes to their voting procedures. Wiley Rein filed its fee request in late October.
Bert Rein, a founding partner of Wiley Rein and lead counsel for Shelby County, said in an interview today that they met the requirements for claiming fees. The county sued, he said, "to protect the right of Shelby and its citizens' right to put in place procedures it thinks will protect everyone's right to vote."
If the judge finds Shelby County is entitled to fees, the focus would then shift to the amount of money the county's lawyers are seeking. Wiley Rein reported billing its standard hourly rates for the respective years it worked on the case (2010 rates for work in 2010, 2011 rates for work in 2011, etc.).
The firm said its rates were in line with what other major law firms charged. Rein, for instance, reported charging $920 per hour in 2012, which the firm noted was less than the $1,250 hourly rate charged by certain partners at Dickstein Shapiro, according to a survey by The National Law Journal. This year, Rein's hourly rate went up to $950.
Rein said today the firm's rates were reasonable. "We think they're what the market justifies and what we charge to our other clients," he said.
Shelby County was one of the jurisdictions subject to special oversight of its electoral processes under Section 4. Before making changes to how elections were run, the county had to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court, a process known as "preclearance."
In a 5-4 decision this summer, the Supreme Court found Section 4 was unconstitutional, citing Congress' reliance on outdated information. The court didn't take a position on Section 5 of the law, which detailed the preclearance requirements.
Shelby County and other opponents of preclearance claimed victory. Civil rights groups decried the decision as gutting the Voting Rights Act.
Under the voting rights law, a party who sued to enforce the "voting guarantees" of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendments could seek legal fees if they won.
Shelby County argued its challenge fell under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. The county's goal, it said in its fee petition, was to enforce the ability of local officials to make changes to electoral procedures that would "best permit its citizens to exercise" their voting rights.
The firm argued its request for fees was reasonable given the complexity of the high-profile litigation. Between 2010 and 2013, Wiley Rein reported spending more than 4,600 hours on the case. Rein, in a court filing, said he reduced the firm's fees by more than 15 percent to avoid disputes about inefficiencies in how the firm managed the case and to account for clerical work by lawyers and paralegals.
After rounding down to $2 million, the firm's overall average hourly rate was approximately $431.
If the court finds Wiley Rein is entitled to fees, the government said in yesterday's court filing that it would want more information from the firm on its billing practices in the case.