TOPEKA — The Kansas Attorney General’s Office says attorneys involved in the American Civil Liberties Union’s five-year legal battle over voter rights in Kansas are asking to be repaid for “grossly excessive” fees.
The dispute over a proposed $4 million price tag comes from the state’s defense of an unconstitutional law that required residents to prove their citizenship before they could register to vote. The law was based on false claims of widespread voter fraud perpetuated by former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was held in contempt and ordered to take additional law classes following an embarrassing 2018 trial in federal court.
After Kobach left office, Secretary of State Scott Schwab and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt pursued unsuccessful appeals to the 10th District Circuit Court and U.S. Supreme Court, adding to the bill the state will have to pay for losing the case. Attorneys who sued the state in joined cases began court proceedings in January to be reimbursed for their costs.
In recent court filings, assistant attorney general Stanley Parker says there was no need for the ACLU to involve an “army of out-of-state lawyers” in the case. He selected examples of other lawsuits over violations of the National Voter Registration Act for which the award for attorney fees ranged from $14,000 to $1.9 million.
“Through their overbilling, their overlawyering, and their vague, imprecise and sloppy billing entries, submitting the request by timekeeper rather than by task, plaintiffs’ counsel have attempted to shift the burden to the defendant and to the court to engage in the excruciating, time-consuming and nearly impossible exercise of attempting to sort through the morass of billing records to try to identify compensable time and sort out what was reasonably expended in this litigation, tiny specks of wheat in the considerable chaff,” Parker wrote.
Nadine Johnson, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, said the attorney general’s office cherrypicked dissimilar cases for comparison to make a disingenuous argument.
“Our secretary of state and our attorney general gambled with taxpayers’ money that the Supreme Court would rubber stamp their baseless claims regarding rampant voter fraud,” Johnson said. “Now that the bill has come due, they’re crying foul. They, and they alone, are responsible for these fees because they and they alone appealed this case all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Johnson said the ACLU already discounted its fees in a good faith effort to resolve the dispute, and plans to file a reply next week.
The attorney general’s office complained that attorneys involved with the litigation billed for interviews with journalists, meeting with Democratic party activists, and more than 300 weekly team meetings that add up to $239,631.40.
Parker complained about vague entries for drafts, revisions, correspondence and analyzing. He also accused attorneys of double billing. There are instances were multiple attorneys prepared for a deposition, witness or arguments that were handled in court by lead counsel Dale Ho.
A total of 17 attorneys are asking for fees. Parker questioned “why so many lawyers were necessary given the purported expertise of Dale Ho, who could have handled this by himself.”
Parker compared the ACLU’s request to ones described by judges in other cases to be excessive, extravagant, gluttonous, inflated or absurd.
“Plaintiffs’ request reflects the kind of sloppy recordkeeping and lack of a good faith effort to exclude excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary hours that justifies total denial of a fee request,” Parker wrote.
If not dismissed in entirety, he argued, the fees should be reduced by at least 80%.
Correction: This story has been updated to attribute comments to the ACLU of Kansas executive director, not the organization’s spokesman.