Another oral argument I attended this week was in the case of Perdue v. Kenny A., in which Cato filed a brief at the end of August. The issue is whether a court can ever increase the statutorily set fees attorneys receive from the government when they successfully bring civil rights challenges to state action.
In order to enforce civil rights guarantees, Congress had two choices: either expand the Department of Justice to cover all civil rights cases, or privatize the system and allow free market principles to encourage private attorneys to prosecute violations. Congress chose the latter, creating a system of market incentives to encourage private attorneys to enforce civil rights and hold elected representatives responsible for the waste of taxpayer dollars lost in the defense of legitimate civil rights violations and repayment of “reasonable” attorney fees.
Here a group of attorneys won an important case for foster children in Georgia, and the court awarded them $6 million in fees based on prevailing hourly rates — the “lodestar” method — and an additional $4.5 million enhancement for the exceptional quality of work and results achieved. At Georgia’s request, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review the case and determine whether quality of work and results are appropriately considered components of a reasonable fee.
Cato, joining six other public interest legal organizations, filed an amicus brief supporting the attorneys. We argue that the enhancement in this case is necessary to preserve incentives in the privatized market. Not only does it encourage attorneys to pursue civil rights abuses, but it provides a powerful disincentive for governments to draw out litigation in the hope that attorneys will no longer be able to afford pursue it. In addition, quality of performance and attained results are rightly considered as part of the attorney fee calculus. The enhancement here helps to promote the free market of privatized civil rights prosecutions and encourages governments to resolve civil rights cases quickly.
Unfortunately, the Court didn’t seem to be convinced at oral argument that there was a problem with the way civil rights attorneys are compensated under the lodestar method. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, in particular, were aggressive in questioning a very well prepared Paul Clement (the former solicitor general, with whom I had the privilege to work on a different case that will be argued next month). They expressed concern about how to evaluate the “exceptional results” needed to justify a fee enhancement. Clement said that the Court could leave this to the trial judges’ discretion,to which Justice Scalia replied: “You say discretion. I say randomness.”
Only Justice Sotomayor, who was again an active questioner, suggested a standard to guide judges, citing such factors as a discrepancy between the market in which the attorney practices and the market on which fees are based, as well as the attoney’s experience (for example, the justices frequently referred to a “brilliant” second-year associate who might be paid at a partner rate). But several justices, at least, would never agree to such a standard. Even Justice Breyer, typically friendly to civil rights claims, expressed skepticism over whether millions of taxpayer dollars should be paid to already well-compensated lawyers.
Still, while it would be strange for district judges to have the ability to reduce fee awards for various reasons (such as inferior performance, even if technically victorious) while not being able to increase them, that’s the result we’ll have if the Court rules as all indications now suggest.