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Pam Bondi balks at paying full cost of Florida's fight against gay marriage

Attorney General Pam Bondi says lawyers who challenged the gay marriage ban are “not entitled to appellate attorney’s fees.”
Published Aug. 16, 2015

After losing its yearslong defense of Florida's same-sex marriage ban, the state is arguing it shouldn't have to pay the full cost of its crusade.

Last week, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi objected to a motion concerning legal fees from lawyers who represented gay couples seeking to have their marriages recognized in Florida. In response, she wrote that because Florida voluntarily dismissed its appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right to same-sex marriage nationwide, the state should not have to cover the cost of the lengthy appeals process it initiated.

Attorneys who worked to defeat the marriage ban said they have not come up with the exact amount they are owed.

However, one suggested that it could be in the realm of $500,000.

"It's ludicrous," said Elizabeth White, a Jacksonville civil rights attorney who helped bring one of the cases that challenged the state's gay marriage ban. "Quite frankly, the state vigorously litigated this. Now they're saying, 'We lost, but we don't want to pay.' "

Last year, when a federal judge in Tallahassee struck down Florida's gay marriage ban, the Attorney General's Office went the route taken by many other Southern states and continued to fight. First, it appealed the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Then, when judges there refused to delay the lower court's decision from taking effect, the state appealed again, taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was unsuccessful there as well.

Each time the state filed an appeal, lawyers for the gay couples fought back.

Yet on Aug. 10, Bondi wrote that opposing lawyers "are not entitled to appellate attorney's fees." She did not contest the likelihood that the state will be required to reimburse the attorneys for their work at the lower court level. A spokesman for her office declined to comment.

"It really is the height of hypocrisy to argue we shouldn't be entitled to fees when they put us through this," said attorney Stephen Rosenthal who, along with the ACLU of Florida, represented a group of Miami plaintiffs in the case.

"They knew full well that if they lost, that they and, frankly taxpayers, would be on the hook for paying for their unwise legal defense of an unconstitutional law," he said.

Bondi's response came three days after Gov. Rick Scott agreed to pay a Tallahassee lawyer $700,000 in settlement costs for a public records lawsuit.

In other parts of the country, courts are only beginning to decide how much states' opposition to gay marriage should cost them. Last week, a federal judge in South Carolina ordered the state to pay more than $135,000 to seven lawyers who represented a lesbian couple. In Michigan, lawyers for same-sex couples are seeking $1.9 million from the state.

"Obviously, they know it's going to be a substantial amount," White said.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.

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