Attorneys seek more than $3 million in legal fees for voting rights cases

Attorneys representing the Navajo Nation in its successful voting rights lawsuits against San Juan County are seeking more than $3 million in legal fees from the county.
In a January 25 filing in federal court, the attorneys argue that because of the “extraordinarily high level of success and the inordinate delay in entering a final judgment, the Court should therefore enter a judgment for a total award of $3,083,862.20 (fees and costs), plus interest and after-accruing fees and costs.”
Over the course of the lawsuit, Federal Judge Robert Shelby ruled that the voting districts used by San Juan County for commission and school elections violated the 14th Amendment and a number of federal voting rights laws.
In December, 2017, Judge Shelby signed a ruling that creates new voting districts for all three commission districts and all five school board districts. The ruling calls for elections in 2018 for all eight positions.
The new districts create a strong Native American majority in two of the three commission districts and in three of the five school districts.
Despite the fact that Native Americans make up approximately 50 percent of the population of San Juan County, there has never been more than one Native American on the three-member Commission, or more than two Native Americans on the five-member school board.
San Juan County filed an appeal of the ruling in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and has asked for an expedited decision from the court on the call for elections in all eight voting districts in 2018.
The Voting Rights Act authorizes an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees, expert fees, and other litigation expenses to a “prevailing party” in “any action or proceeding to enforce the voting guarantees of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendments.”
The request asks for attorney fees exceeding $415 an hour for lead attorneys Steven Boos and Eric Swenson, and $200 an hour for other attorneys working on the case.
The request also asks for $120 an hour for legal researcher/paralegal work and $427,654 for the work of hired experts. The filing states that the fees align with prevailing market rates for legal work.
The request outlines roughly $2.4 million in legal fees and roughly $700,000 in costs for a total of roughly $3.1 million plus interest.
The lawsuit has been in the federal court system for more than five years. The initial filing was made in 2012, arguing that the voting districts for the County Commission and School Board should have been redrawn after the 2010 Census.
While the Commission did make minor changes in the districts after the 2010 Census, they did not change the boundaries of the voting precincts.
San Juan County redrew voting districts for the 2016 election, but Judge Shelby ruled that they were also unconstitutional because the district boundaries were “predominated by racial classifications.”
Eventually, a Special Master was hired by the court to draw the boundaries. Dr. Bernard Grofman created the recommendations for the new boundaries. The recommendation was accepted by Judge Shelby.
The previous voting districts and precinct boundaries were created in the late 1980s after a similar lawsuit. A consent decree to manage the elections was carefully watched by the US Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
Voting districts and precinct boundaries were not adjusted after the 1990 Census, when the OCR was carefully overseeing every aspect of the local elections.
The district boundaries and precincts were also not adjusted after the 2000 Census, when the OCR was continuing to monitor the elections.

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