Will taxpayers pay legal fees in redistricting battle?

One interesting part of the legal battle over redrawing the state’s political boundaries is who is paying the attorneys in the case. A five judge panel has oral arguments over the proposed maps on Jan. 4. The court appointed panel is likely to determine the makeup of the state’s political boundaries for Minnesota’s 8 congressional districts and the 201 legislative districts. The state has to redraw the state’s political boundaries once every ten years to ensure that each citizen is guaranteed equal representation under the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Minnesota.

Attorneys representing the Republicans and the Democrats have been working to influence the court to adopt their proposed set of maps and redistricting criteria. MPR News has already reported that the public may never know who is paying the bulk of the legal fees in the battle. It’s also possible that the high-profile attorneys in the case could receive taxpayer money for their efforts.

Arguments are being made before the panel to declare the state’s current political boundaries unconstitutional because the boundaries don’t provide equal representation under the U.S. Constitution. If the court declares the boundaries unconstitutional, federal law could allow the court to order “a reasonable attorney’s fees as part of the costs” under the Civil Rights Act. (Note: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the boundaries don’t meet constitutional muster since the entire point of redistricting is resetting the boundaries after the once-a-decade census is taken).

There is some precedent for the court to award fees to attorneys involved in the redistricting battle. In 2002, the redistricting panel at the time ordered the state of Minnesota to pay $368,430 to the four sets of attorneys in the case. The panel relied on the argument that the all of the parties “prevailed” in the case and were awarded the funds. The panel put forward a set of maps that relied on input from all of the parties involved.

One key question for the current five-judge panel is how they will interpret which party prevails in the case. It’s unlikely that the panel will adopt a set of maps that are identical to the proposals put forward by the parties. If history is a guide, the court will draw a new set of boundaries that relies on input from all of the parties involved. If that’s the case, all of the parties could be eligible for attorneys fees from the state’s treasury.

To date, the five-judge panel tasked with drawing the state’s political boundaries has been reluctant to address the issue. The court heard arguments on the matter in October but declined to act at the time. Presiding Judge Wilhelmina Wright issued an order Friday saying she will not allow arguments on the constitutionality of the current boundaries at its hearing on Jan. 4.

One group that could prevent taxpayer money from being spent on attorney’s fees is Gov. Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature. The two sides have until Feb. 21 to agree on a set of maps. If that happens, the court won’t have to step in and take over the process. Gov. Dayton and GOP legislators have said, however, that it’s unlikely they will reach an agreement.

  • Mark D

    No, Tax payers will not have to pay legal fees!

    Does Not MPR know there are Tree’s that grow hard cold Cash for Government Gratification?

    Maybe MPR should get St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman on here and tell us how these Tree’s helped him stuff an extra $11,000.00 in his yearly Puplic Service Job??