Fee award for voting rights lawyers upheld by divided U.S. appeals court

People fill ballots in privacy booths at a polling station. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • State of Tennessee deemed responsible for fees
  • Voting regulations were repealed before final court ruling

(Reuters) - The state of Tennessee must pay more than $842,000 in legal fees to voting rights advocates who challenged curbs that the state imposed in 2019 on registration activities but later repealed while the case was pending, a divided U.S. appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

A panel of the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the plaintiffs, including the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, were the "prevailing parties" under federal law and entitled to an award of attorneys' fees.

The panel majority, led by Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, a one-time shortlist contender for the U.S. Supreme Court in the Trump administration, rejected Tennessee's argument that the groups had not actually won anything lasting since the state withdrew the disputed regulations. The rules imposed training and other requirements for people involved in voter registration initiatives.

When Republican Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee signed the measures in May 2019, he said "we want to provide for fair, for genuine — for elections with integrity."

The state repealed the challenged regulations after the plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction but before any final order was issued. Kethledge, joined by Circuit Judge John Bush, said the trial judge "never vacated or dissolved the injunction" and so the voting rights plaintiffs enjoyed more than a "fleeting" victory over the registration provisions.

Kethledge said the litigation had concluded at the district court and was not challenged on appeal, an "enduring enough" win entitling the plaintiffs' to legal fees.

The Tennessee state attorney general's office on Thursday did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Writing in dissent, Circuit Judge John Nalbandian said the organizations that sued should not be entitled to fees in a scenario where "a state-defendant voluntarily repeals the statute before a merits decision."

Pooja Chaudhuri of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who argued for plaintiffs in the case, told Reuters on Thursday it was "clear" the voting rights groups were "prevailing."

The voting rights groups won a preliminary injunction in the district court that gave them a chance to continue registration efforts "without having to fear for criminal or civil sanctions," Chaudhuri said.

Hogan Lovells was among the law firms that represented plaintiffs in the litigation. The American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project and Campaign Legal Center also represented plaintiffs.

The case is Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP v. Hargett, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-6024.

For NAACP: Pooja Chaudhuri of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

For League of Women Voters of Tennessee: Davin Rosborough of ACLU

For defendant: Matthew Cloutier of Tennessee Attorney General's Office

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