Wednesday, March 18, 2015

No Attorney Fees in Long-Running Texas Redistricting Case

The Fifth Circuit denied the plaintiffs' claims for attorneys fees in the 2012 case out of San Antonio over Texas redistricting. The ruling marks a bitter end for the plaintiffs in this long-running and complicated dispute that put the plaintiffs between two district courts, two different sections of the Voting Rights Act, the Texas legislature, and the Supreme Court--and stuck them with a $360,000 bill for . . . a victory. The ruling rewards Texas's foot-dragging through the preclearance process as two cases simultaneously worked their ways through the courts.

Recall that the plaintiffs sued Texas in the Western District of Texas over the legislature's redistricting plan. The plaintiffs argued that the plan violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause, and that it hadn't been precleared under Section 5. (The preclearance case was pending before a three-judge court in D.C.) The San Antonio court enjoined the legislature's redistricting plan because it hadn't been precleared and drew its own district maps.

The Supreme Court then stepped in and rejected the San Antonio court's maps, but gave the court another shot at drawing them. The San Antonio court redrew the maps according to the Supreme Court's new standard. Following the Supreme Court, the San Antonio court issued its new maps as "a result of preliminary determinations regarding the merits of the Section 2 and constitutional claims presented in this case, and application of the 'not insubstantial' standard for the Section 5 claims." (That "not insubstantial" standard said that the San Antonio court could only consider the Section 5 preclearance claim insofar as the plaintiffs' challenges in the D.C. court were "not insubstantial." But the merits of the Section 5 claim were reserved to the D.C. court (and not the San Antonio court).)

The D.C. court denied preclearance to the Texas legislature's maps. Texas appealed, but used the San Antonio court's plan as an interim plan for its 2012 elections.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck the preclearance coverage formula in Shelby County and later vacated the D.C. court's judgment denying preclearance to the legislature's plan. At the same time, Governor Perry signed a bill repealing the legislature's plan and adopting the court's plan. The San Antonio district court dismissed the case (or what remained of it, the plaintiffs' Section 2 and constitutional claims).

This seems like a win for the plaintiffs. So why no attorney fees?

The Fifth Circuit held that the plaintiffs weren't "prevailing parties" under the fee-shifting statute. The court said that the plaintiffs couldn't have won their Section 5 claim at the San Antonio court, because only the D.C. court can rule on the merits of a Section 5 claim. And the Fifth Circuit said that the plaintiffs didn't win their Section 2 and constitutional claims at the San Antonio court, because the San Antonio court never evaluated them.

The Fifth Circuit suggested that the plaintiffs might have been "prevailing parties" under a "catalyst theory," by merely demonstrating that their lawsuit caused Texas to alter its conduct. But the Fifth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court rejected this approach in Buckhannon.

 

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/2015/03/no-attorney-fees-in-long-running-texas-redistricting-case.html

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