Nation - California Judge slashes election case attorney fees School district called legal bill of $1.8M a 'money grab'

By Michael R. Blood

Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A Madera County judge slashed more than $1.6 million from legal fees sought by attorneys who filed a lawsuit against a school district over the way it conducted elections, officials said last week.

The Madera Unified School District did not contest the 2008 lawsuit, but lawyers billed the district for $1.2 million, a fee later increased to $1.8 million, according to district officials. The district called the attorneys' bill a money grab and feared it would force administrators to cut money for books and lunches to pay it.

In an order issued last week, Superior Court Judge James Oakley reduced the amount to $162,500 for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, law professor Joaquin Avila and the firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, which sought the fees.

In his ruling, the judge called the amount "fair and reasonable."

The case involved the California Voting Rights Act, which was drafted mainly by Avila. An Associated Press investigation last year found that all the cases filed under the 2002 law could be traced to Avila or an attorney for the committee, Robert Rubin, who also helped write the law. At that time, Avila, Rubin's committee and lawyers working with them had collected or billed local governments about $4.3 million in several cases.

The law made it easier for lawyers to sue and win financial judgments in cases arising from claims that minorities were effectively shut out of local elections, while generally shielding attorneys from liability if the claims are tossed out. It targets commonly used "at-large" elections -- those in which candidates run citywide or across an entire school district.

Madera Unified changed to smaller district elections.

Critics have said the law is vague and unnecessary, fees being sought by the lawyers were excessive, and cash-strapped communities see little choice but to settle, given the risks of costly litigation.

The case has been closely watched -- dozens of cities and school boards have been warned they could be sued under the law.

Avila directed questions to Rubin.

In a statement, Rubin said, "The legal team worked exceptionally hard to prevent an illegal election system from going forward, which is what this case has always been about. Our three clients, who successfully challenged the discriminatory at-large election system, and all citizens of Madera will now enjoy the benefits of a new, fair system designed to protect and advance the precious right to vote. As for the court's latest ruling, we are closely studying it and assessing next steps."

Published: Mon, Aug 30, 2010