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Court: State must pay attorneys some of what they wanted in redistricting case

An order this week by the special redistricting panel created by the state Supreme Court said the state and Carver County, the two named defendants in Wattson v. Secretary of State, must pay $479,927.12 in attorney fees and $1,079.04 in court costs to three batches of attorneys. 

The private attorneys who sued the state of Minnesota to get new congressional and political maps drawn by the Supreme Court will get some tax dollars to compensate them for their effort.

They won’t, however, get as much as they asked for.

An order this week by the special redistricting panel created by the state Supreme Court said the state and Carver County, the two named defendants in Wattson v. Secretary of State, must pay $479,927.12 in attorney fees and $1,079.04 in court costs to three batches of attorneys. The state is expected to pay the entire award.

These awards are similar, when adjusted for inflation, to what was awarded to the attorneys who sued after the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census.

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It is less than half the $1,033,685.09 requested by three batches of attorneys involved in the case. They are the original plaintiffs led by former state Senate attorney Peter Wattson and former Ramsey County elections chief Joe Mansky, attorneys representing the interests of the Republican Party and attorneys representing the interests of the Democratic party.

Peter Wattson
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Peter Wattson
A fourth plaintiff that filed briefs as part of an effort to enhance the political clout of communities of color did not request reimbursement from the governments.

The parties sued the state in 2021 based on the expectation that a divided Legislature would fail to agree on new lines, as required by the U.S. Constitution. The litigation proceeded while the Legislature still had time to act and the new maps were issued on February 15, 2022, the deadline for new districts set in state law.

Plaintiffs in civil rights cases such as this – filed because the districts created a decade ago were no longer equal in population – are entitled to have their “reasonable” legal fees reimbursed if they win. While it was certain that the court would find the old districts unconstitutional, how they determined the new districts was less certain, and the winning plaintiffs also made suggestions for the creation of those new districts.

Joe Mansky
Pool photo
Joe Mansky
In reducing the amount requested by the three groups of attorneys, the court panel said some of what was requested was not reasonable. While the plaintiffs argued that they faced a demanding schedule for briefs and hearings and that the litigation was of tremendous public importance, the five-judge panel said “they overlook that this litigation followed the predictable pattern of prior redistricting cycles and did not involve any novel legal issues.”

The court, however, rejected the argument by the state’s own lawyers that much of the work done by the partisan attorneys was them debating one another about how the new maps should be drawn, each seeking partisan advantage in future elections. The court panel said such arguments helped the court draft new districts while noting that none of the proposed maps were accepted or rejected in whole.

The panel discounted the payment requests from the Wattson attorneys because they spent time arguing that the court should consider political and electoral impacts of new maps, something the panel had already rejected. It also cut the request from the Democratic-supporting lawyers for work monitoring the Legislature, researching the backgrounds of the judges on the panel and in soliciting supporters to attend public hearings and to submit written comments.

“While all applicants were successful,” presiding judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman wrote for the panel, “none was wholly successful or materially more successful than the others.” That the panel enjoined the use of the old districts and drew new lines, “was a vital but relatively unremarkable victory, since Secretary (of State Steve) Simon and (Carver County elections supervisor Kendra) Olson largely did not contest the issue.”

And commenting on the fact that taxpayers will have to foot the bill, the order states that “this public expense becomes necessary when the legislature fails to complete redistricting and citizens must initiate litigation to protect their voting right – a now familiar pattern in Minnesota.”

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It has been five decades since the courts began to draw legislative and congressional lines for Minnesota when the Legislature failed to do so.