5th Circuit upholds $6.7 mln in fees for plaintiffs in voting rights case

Presidio County election judge Lauren Martinez folds a booth after voting ended for the 2020 U.S. presidential election in Marfa, Texas, U.S., November 3, 2020. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
  • Dechert, WilmerHale among private firms in the Texas federal court litigation
  • Panel judges rule unanimously plaintiffs were "prevailing parties"

Sept 4 - A U.S. appeals court on Friday upheld a Texas federal judge's award of more than $6.7 million in attorneys' fees for the law firms and civil rights groups that successfully challenged a restrictive Texas law requiring voters to present identification before being allowed to vote.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a unanimous three-judge panel decision that the plaintiffs were the "prevailing parties" in the litigation in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

The plaintiffs in four consolidated cases included Texas state lawmakers and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, whose lawyers included a team from Dechert. The plaintiffs argued that state lawmakers in 2011 had adopted a photo identification requirement order to suppress voting among minorities.

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Lawyers from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund advocated for the Texas League of Young Voters Education Fund and an African-American registered voter.

"We are very pleased with the ruling, which confirmed that we had achieved a victory on behalf of voters of color in Texas," Ezra Rosenberg, a lead plaintiffs' lawyer in the case and co-director of the voting rights project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, told Reuters.

A representative from the Texas attorney general's office could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

The state had disputed that the civil rights advocates and law firms met the threshold to be considered "prevailing parties" in the litigation, which is required to be awarded fees.

State lawmakers in 2017 had enacted a new and less restrictive photo identification provision for voters, following an interim order by U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos in Corpus Christi, Texas, blocking enforcement of the law for the 2016 election.

Lawyers for Texas asserted that the plaintiffs should not be considered the victors after the trial court vacated its injunction and did not award any further relief. The state told the 5th Circuit that the plaintiffs "left the courthouse emptyhanded."

Circuit Judge James Ho, joined by Circuit Judges Carolyn King and James Dennis, said on Friday the trial court never rejected the premise of her interim order that the state's photo identification requirement was discriminatory.

"We agree with the district court that the interim order alone is enough to confer prevailing party status on plaintiffs," Ho wrote for the panel. The order was "judicially sanctioned relief," he added, that "directly benefited plaintiffs during the November 2016 elections."

Ho wrote separately in a concurring opinion, however, to defend voter identification laws. "We should have upheld the Texas law and put an end to this litigation five years ago," he said.

The trial court's May 2020 fee order awarded about $680,000 to the Campaign Legal Center and $797,000 to the Texas law firm Brazil & Dunn. Ramos awarded Wilmer more than $343,000 in attorneys' fees and Dechert was awarded $1.24 million.

Rosenberg was formerly a partner at Dechert before joining the Lawyers' Committee. "Rosenberg played a critical role, readily apparent to the Court, in coordinating this complex case," Ramos wrote in her order.

The case is Veasey v. Abbott, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-40428.

For the plaintiffs: Ezra Rosenberg of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

For Texas: Lanora Pettit of the Texas attorney general’s office

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(This article corrects to say Ezra Rosenberg was a former partner at Dechert, not a former special senior counsel.)

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