Private attorneys sued Minnesota to obtain new political and congressional maps drawn by the Supreme Court. They will be compensated with tax dollars.
But they won’t get what they want.
A special redistricting panel of the state Supreme Court issued an order this week stating that the state and Carver County (the two defendants in Wattson V. Secretary of State) must pay $479.927.12 in attorney fees, and $1,079.04 for court costs to three batches. The entire award is expected to be paid by the state.
These awards, after being adjusted for inflation, are very similar to those awarded to attorneys who sued following the 2000 Census and 2010 Census.
This amount is half of the $1,033,685.09 that was requested by the three batches involved in the case. They were the original plaintiffs, led by Peter Wattson, former state senator attorney and former Ramsey County elections chief Joe Mansky. These attorneys represent the interests both of the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party.
The governments did not reimburse a fourth plaintiff who filed briefs in an effort to increase the political power of communities of color.
In 2021, the parties sued the state based on the belief that a divided Legislature would not agree to new lines as required by the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit was filed while the Legislature had still time to act. The new maps were published on February 15, 2022, which was the deadline for the creation of new districts as per state law.
Civil rights plaintiffs in cases like this, where the original districts were not equal in population, are entitled to their “reasonable legal fees” reimbursement if they win. Although it was clear that the court would declare the old districts illegal, the process of determining the new districts was not. The winning plaintiffs made suggestions for creating those districts.
The court panel reduced the amount requested by three groups of lawyers, but said that some of the requests were not reasonable. The plaintiffs claimed that they were subject to a strict schedule of hearings and briefings, and that the litigation was extremely important for the public. However, the panel of five judges stated that “they overlook the fact that this litigation followed the predictable pattern prior redistricting cycles. It did not involve any new legal issues.”
However, the court rejected arguments by state lawyers that a lot of the work done in the state by partisan attorneys involved them debating each other about how to draw the new maps, each trying to gain partisan advantage in future election. While the court panel stated that such arguments were helpful in drafting new districts, it noted that none of the maps proposed by the court was accepted or rejected.
Because the Wattson lawyers spent time arguing that court should take into account political and electoral consequences of new maps, the panel rejected the Wattson attorneys’ payment requests. 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, Louise Dovre Bjorkman, presiding judge, wrote that “none was wholly or materially more success than the others”. This panel “was a vital, but relatively unremarkable win, since Secretary (of state Steve) Simon (Carver County elections supervisor Kendra) Olson) did not contest the issue.
Commenting on the fact taxpayers will be paying the bill, the order says that “this public cost becomes necessary when redistricting fails and citizens must file litigation to protect their voting rights – a pattern that is well-known in Minnesota.”
It’s been fifty years since Minnesota legislators didn’t need court intervention to create new legislative and congressional maps.