A Leon County circuit judge ruled Thursday the plaintiffs in Florida’s redistricting lawsuit can recover some of their legal costs, but not attorney’s fees. The voting-rights activists are looking to a legal concept known as the “private attorney general” to make their request. When state governments are involved in inappropriate or even corrupt activity, it can be difficult to hold them accountable. The attorney general might seem like the right office to investigate and prosecute those cases, but there’s a built-in conflict of interest because attorneys general are also the top legal advisor for the state government. Former Stetson Law School Dean Bruce Jacob says some places avoid that problem by installing a parallel office. “They have what is called the ombudsman,” Jacob says, “who is a person, a lawyer – or I guess it could be a non-lawyer – but a person who looks out for the interests of the public.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise if that sounds familiar. Many agencies and corporations have ombudsmen to investigate internal affairs and the impact of policies on the public. But without a similar office in government, a legal doctrine known as the “private attorney general” has sprung up. According to Jacob, this concept says the government should support private citizens who bring lawsuits alleging government misconduct.
“If a group such as the League of Women Voters does that, and they prevail, they are acting as kind of an attorney general for the public,” he says. “If they prevail, they certainly should be entitled to ask for – and hopefully get – attorney’s fees.”