Wiley Rein is defending its request for $2 million in legal fees from the federal government after winning a constitutional challenge to the federal Voting Rights Act.
The U.S. Department of Justice has opposed the fee request, arguing Wiley Rein's client, Shelby County, Ala., didn't bring the type of claims covered under the voting rights law's fee-shifting provision. On Dec. 20, Wiley Rein filed court papers that accused the government of trying to relitigate issues the U.S. Supreme Court decided.
"[N]either their antipathy toward the rights Shelby County restored to the citizens of formerly covered jurisdictions nor the slew of other objections they raise can defeat Shelby County’s proper claim for attorney’s fees," firm founding partner Bert Rein wrote.
A divided Supreme Court in June struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 included the formula used to decide which states and jurisdictions had to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to voting procedures.
The Voting Rights Act permits legal fees for a party that sued to "enforce the voting guarantees of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment." Shelby County's lawyers, led by Rein, said in their Oct. 25 fee request in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that their case did involve a constitutional challenge to protect voting rights.
The Justice Department, in its Dec. 6 opposition papers, argued the government was immune to a fee award because the voting rights law didn't include language waiving the government's immunity to fee awards. Lawyers for the government also disputed that Shelby County's case included the type of claims that would trigger the fee-shifting provision.
Rein, in his response brief late last week, maintained that Shelby County's case was an action to enforce voting rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, saying the government's position reflected a "fundamental misunderstanding."
In arguing that Congress exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Rein said, Shelby County sued to enforce those sections of the Constitution. He also rejected the government’s immunity argument, saying the federal Equal Access to Justice Act waived sovereign immunity, since the voting rights law included a fee-shifting provision and didn't explicitly bar the government from paying fees.
"In the end, the Government ties itself in knots looking for ways in which it can avoid paying attorney’s fees under the rubric of sovereign immunity," Rein wrote.
U.S. District Judge John Bates will decide whether Wiley Rein is entitled to fees before considering the reasonableness of the firm's request for $2 million in legal fees and $10,000 in litigation costs.