To the winner goes the attorneys’ fees. That’s often how federal civil litigation works, with hundreds of statutes in the books entitling prevailing plaintiffs fee awards. But not for Shelby County. A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that the Alabama county isn’t owed any legal fees from the federal government despite winning its challenge against a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling comes two years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the formula in the act used to identify jurisdictions that historically suppressed minority voters. Those states and voting districts, mostly in the South, were required to seek Washington’s approval before changing election practices. In a 5-4 vote, the high court agreed with the Shelby County that the formula isn’t constitutionally valid because it’s based on decades-old voter-participation data that may not reflect more recent progress. After its Supreme Court victory, Shelby County sought more than $2 million in attorneys’ fees and costs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, affirming a lower court, ruled that the federal government had no obligation to pay up.
The case decided Tuesday turned on how to interpret a fee-shifting provision in the 1975 amendments to the act that says attorneys’ fees may go to the prevailing party “in any action or proceeding to enforce the voting guarantees of the Fourteenth or Fifteenth amendment.”
The statute governing attorneys’ fees is supposed to encourage private parties to bring civil rights lawsuits by shielding them from the costs of litigation, the D.C. Circuit said. But the judges said the law wasn’t intended to reimburse plaintiffs for the kind of case that Shelby pursued — one that opposed compliance with the Voting Rights Act.