For a year, they argued over how Minnesota’s congressional and legislative maps should be redrawn.
Now they’re arguing over how much money state taxpayers should pay them for their effort.
Three of the four private plaintiffs in the case known as Wattson v. Simon have asked the special five-judge panel that drew the state’s new political lines to award them a little more than $1 million to cover attorney fees and other costs.
But the state has argued that the requests are too high and has asked the court panel to reduce those fees by more than half.
Prevailing parties in civil rights litigation are entitled to reasonable attorney fees. Several of the plaintiffs quoted from a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hastert v. Illinois Board of Elections, which states that an award of attorneys’ fees is generally appropriate in redistricting litigation, where “the political branches of government [have] fail[ed] to vindicate important rights and the affected parties must seek a judicial hearing.”
The plaintiffs seeking reimbursement are Peter Wattson and others who filed the initial case in February 2021 and who are seeking $305,360; Paul Anderson and others who represented Republican interests in the mapmaking, who are seeking $345,019; and Frank Sachs and others who represented Democratic interests, who are seeking $383,305.
A fourth plaintiff led by economics professor Bruce Corrie representing the interests of people of color in Minnesota did not request attorneys fees and costs.
“Our firm proudly agreed to represent the Corrie Plaintiffs on a pro bono basis because we thought it was important that all Minnesotans of color had a seat at the table during the redistricting cycle,” said Brian Dillon of the Lathrop GPM lawfirm. “Because we agreed to represent our clients pro bono, we did not think it would be appropriate to seek reimbursement from the state for our work.”
An attorney for the state attorney general argued that the fee requests are excessive because the basic question was not disputed and easy to prove — that congressional and legislative districts drawn in 2010 no longer met federal constitutional requirements that districts be of equal population.
“The central legal issue on which the parties prevailed — that Minnesota needed new district boundaries beginning with the 2022 statewide primary election — was undisputed and did not require twenty plaintiffs’ attorneys accumulating more than $1 million in fees to address,” wrote assistant attorneys general Angela Behrens and Nathan Hartshorn.
The state thinks the three groups should get no more than $147,000 each, amounts more in line with fees awarded in 2002 and 2012.
“The parties’ central interest in the litigation appeared to be not in litigating the continuing constitutionality of the maps established in (2010) but in advocating for new boundaries in locations that the respective plaintiffs preferred,” the state argued. “Indeed, all plaintiffs spent the majority of the litigation advocating against each other.
“Allowing plaintiffs to collect fees from the state to bankroll unlimited litigation against one another finds no support in law and is clearly contrary to the public interest.”
Often, lawsuits challenging redistricting plans drawn by legislatures involve protected classes such as communities of color. But those issues were not present in this litigation because no new plans were before the court, only the fact that the decade-old maps were out of compliance based on population alone.
Origins of the case
The case was originally brought by former state Senate attorney Wattson and former Ramsey County elections director Joe Mansky. Both had been involved in previous redistricting processes and guessed correctly that a politically divided state Legislature wouldn’t be able to agree on new maps. That had been the result for the previous five decades when the state court had to draw new lines.
The other plaintiffs asked to intervene in the case. The state Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction and appointed a panel of five appeals and district court judges who held public hearings, accepted legal briefs and held lengthy oral arguments. Once the Legislature missed a Feb. 15 deadline to come up with a plan, the panel released its maps which will be used for this year’s elections and for the next decade.
On May 2, the panel issued an order setting up a schedule for the parties to the litigation to argue whether attorney fees and court costs should be reimbursed by the state and at what dollar amounts. May 17 was the deadline for making requests and May 31 was the deadline for the parties to submit written arguments.
The court panel will not schedule oral arguments but will make a decision based on the filings.
Saving the state money?
The plaintiffs seeking payment portrayed their work as a civic duty that might have saved the state headaches and money. “Any delay to the electoral process because of the Legislature’s failure to act was avoided because of the Wattson Plaintiffs’ timely commencement of this action and the diligent work of the Special Redistricting Panel,” wrote attorney Adam Sienkowski. “As a result, the state saved substantial amounts of money it otherwise would have spent within the Legislature to do its job on the required redistricting — with this savings occurring at a time when the state has a 2022 projected surplus of $9 billion.”
Sienkowski’s firm fronted the costs of the litigation and was not certain they would prevail, he wrote. The firm “privately financed this labor-intensive judicial redistricting litigation for over a year. The risk of financing this judicial redistricting action was substantial, given that the legislature had the opportunity to enact its own congressional and legislative plans until the February 15, 2022 deadline, which would have precluded the recovery of any attorney fees under” federal law.
Elizabeth Brama, the attorney representing the Anderson plaintiffs, said the work she and the other lawyers did was tough but important. “This litigation was complex, hard-fought, labor-intensive, and concerned a topic of critical importance to Minnesota’s voters,” Brama wrote.
The Sachs plaintiffs noted that while none of the maps submitted by the four parties was adopted by the court panel in their entirety, some of their proposals made it into the final product.
“The number of majority-minority and minority-opportunity districts in the final plan came very close to the numbers in the Sachs Legislative Plan,” wrote attorney Charles Nauen. And, “perhaps most notably, for the first time, the Panel created a Senate District containing all of the contiguous land and entire population of the three largest reservations in Minnesota — the Leech Lake Band, the White Earth Band, and the Red Lake Nation. The Sachs Plaintiffs proposed a very similar Senate District that also contained these three reservations.”
But the attorneys for the state asked the court panel not to give too much credence to such credit taking. The Sachs plaintiffs “attribute to their work the panel’s use of a redistricting principle to preserve American Indian reservations to the extent possible,” the assistant attorneys general wrote. “But every party generally agreed this type of principle was appropriate, even if they phrased it slightly different ways.”
The state also accused the intervenors of what it termed “overlawyering.”
“Redistricting litigation in Minnesota has followed a predictable and consistent process that was again followed in this case,” Behrens and Hartshorn wrote. “While the plaintiffs are entitled to their counsel of choice, this case was overlawyered to an unreasonable degree, and Minnesota taxpayers — who will ultimately foot the bill of any fee award — should not have to subsidize this overstaffing.”