Paul, Weiss inked $700K contract with Oklahoma to undo tribal rights ruling

Signage is seen outside of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 30, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Rates for Kannon Shanmugam discounted 50% in challenge to McGirt decision
  • Supreme Court petition pits firm against death penalty defendant

(Reuters) - A contract between Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Oklahoma offers a fresh look at the hourly rate for a leading U.S. Supreme Court practitioner, who is now asking the justices to overturn or limit a landmark tribal rights decision from July 2020 that upended criminal justice jurisdiction in the state.

The contract, worth up to $700,000, requires Paul, Weiss to "investigate, defend and litigate legal claims" related to the Supreme Court's July 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which effectively declared much of eastern Oklahoma to be reservation territory. The decision gave the U.S. government and tribal authorities power over certain criminal cases once prosecuted by the state.

In what appears to be the first case brought under the July 9 contract, Paul, Weiss partner Kannon Shanmugam in Washington, D.C., who leads the firm's Supreme Court practice, filed a petition asking the justices to reconsider the McGirt decision.

Shanmugam normally bills at $1,824 an hour, according to the contract, but the firm agreed to a 50% discount for the state. Major U.S. law firms often provide discounts to state or local clients, and in some instances will take a case to the Supreme Court pro bono. William Marks, an appellate associate, is also billing at 50% of his usual $1,160 hourly rate, the contract showed.

The Paul Weiss petition, docketed last week, spurred criticism from some lawyers on social media and elsewhere, because the underlying case involves Oklahoma's fight against a one-time state death row prisoner accused of killing a Native American woman and two children. Large firms often boast about how many hours they spend annually helping prisoners in death penalty and other cases.

A spokesperson for Paul, Weiss declined to comment on Monday, as did a lawyer for the state prisoner, Shaun Bosse, who is represented pro bono by Jenner & Block. A representative from the Oklahoma state attorney general's office did not immediately comment on questions about how the firm chose Paul, Weiss.

A response from the inmate is due on Sept. 9 at the Supreme Court. The case confronts whether Oklahoma can prosecute a non-Indian who commits a crime against a tribal member in Indian country. The dispute at the high court doesn't involve the merits of the death penalty.

Washington-based appellate partner Jonathan Urick at Lehotsky Keller said on Twitter last week, as part of a discussion about the Paul, Weiss petition, "Kannon and his team are honorable lawyers and everyone should want both sides to have the best representation possible. It serves the rule of law."

The Oklahoma state attorney general's office said it hired Paul, Weiss to help the state to overturn the 5-4 McGirt decision. "Shanmugam is one of the nation's most renowned appellate litigators, having argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court," a news release from the attorney general said on Aug. 6.

The McGirt decision followed an earlier capital case at the Supreme Court in which a team from Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer in 2018 argued for the Oklahoma state warden against a prisoner in a capital case.

The lead attorney for Oklahoma in that case, former Arnold & Porter partner Lisa Blatt, who now heads the Supreme Court practice at Williams & Connolly, declined to comment on Monday.

State agencies often are represented by state solicitors general at the Supreme Court. Oklahoma's state solicitor, Mithun Mansinghani, argued the underlying McGirt case in May 2020, facing off in his debut at the high court against Jenner partner Ian Gershengorn. Mansinghani joined the state attorney general's office in 2017 from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

The Paul, Weiss contract doesn't have a fixed end date.

The case is Oklahoma v. Bosse, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 21-186.

For Oklahoma: Kannon Shanmugam of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison

For Bosse: Zachary Schauf of Jenner & Block

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