Plaintiffs lawyers who brought a challenge to a political redistricting plan in Albuquerque were wrongly ordered to pay $48,217.95 in attorney fees as a sanction for dragging out the litigation, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit found that U.S. District Judge William Johnson of New Mexico abused his discretion in calculating the amount of the sanction against the lawyers based on the date they received a damaging expert report from the city. The plaintiffs did not dismiss their case after receiving the report.
The panel vacated the award and, voting 2-1, told Johnson to reconsider the imposition of a sanction. The majority noted that “lawyers and litigants generally should have some reasonable leeway to review ostensibly damaging materials, even if the materials are, ultimately, the last straw proving their case’s weakness.” The panel majority did not express an opinion on whether fees should be imposed on remand.
In a dissent, Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips wrote that no sanction was appropriate.
“I fear that the unintended but lasting result of this decision will be to frighten off potential voting-rights challengers and their attorneys lest they suffer considerable sanctions,” Phillips wrote.