Florida taxpayers will not have to pay for what could amount to millions in attorneys fees for the coalition of voters groups who successfully challenged the Legislature's drawing of congressional districts, a Leon County court judge ruled Thursday.
But Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis gave them a consolution prize: the Legislature, via taxpayers, would pay most of their costs. That's on top of the more than $7 million already spent on the legislature's lawyers.
Lewis also gave the plaintiffs the comfort of knowing they were the victors.
"I find you to be the prevailing party,'' he told the plaintiffs at the conclusion of the 90-minute hearing in Tallahassee Thursday.
The statement was necessary because, as with everything in this bitterly-fought, two-year case, even the question of who won was in dispute. Employing every ounce of brass-plated legalese, the attorneys pounced on the question of who really won the lawsuit.
The legislature's lawyers argued that because the court threw out only two of the 10 disputed districts that they had succeeded in defeating the voters groups and the plaintiffs should have to pay the Legislature's fees.
Arguing the Legislature acted in bad faith "when all we did was aggressively defend the case...is in itself in bad faith,'' said Raoul Cantero, lawyer for the Florida Senate. David King, lawyer for the League of Women Voters, Florida Common Cause and a group of Democratic Party-backed voters, called that argument "absurd." He noted the judge concluded that the entire congressional plan was found unconstitutional, that legislators had conspired with political operatives for partisan intent, that Districts 5 and 10 were defective, and that the Legislature had to convene in special session to repair the map.
"How, when they do a remedial map, all of a sudden that turns them into a winner?," he asked.
Lewis didn't buy the defendant's argument, but he also didn't agree that the attorneys for the plaintiffs who argued that the Legislature's delays and destruction of documents was proof they litigated the case in bad faith.
"I don't find the plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys fees,'' Lewis said. "I don't find any legitimate misconduct on the part of the legislative lawyers who defended the case."
He ordered the state to pay reasonable costs for putting on the case, estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lewis also rejected the argument from King that because Attorney General Pam Bondi had failed to step up and defend the redistricting rules embedded in the Constitution that they had to do it for her. That principle, known as the Private Attorney Doctrine, allows parties who bring a lawsuit that is considered to benefit the public as a whole to recover attorneys' fees if they prevail.
"The attorney general has every resource that could be brought to bear and they took no action at all,'' King said. "I don't think it is hyperbole to say it took herculean effort to pry the fact out of the Legisalture and the political operatives."
Lewis's ruling said that the Legislature's effort to conspire with political operatives to draw two districts that benefitted Republican would have remained concealed "had it not been for the Plaintiffs' determined efforts to uncover it in this case."
But Lewis said Thursday that the Private Attorney General Doctrine in a case and he wasn't going to be the first to do it. The appellate courts could do it, he said, if the plantiffs want to appeal. King said after the hearing that remains an option.
"This is an important thing for the citizens of Florida,'' he said.
Photo: Judge Terry Lewis