Tribe wins court costs in voting rights dispute

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A federal judge has approved legal fees of over $960,000 for lawyers who represented American Indians who successfully challenged Fremont County’s system of at-large voting for county commissioners.

U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne on Friday granted the bulk of the request for fees for the legal team that represented five members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes in litigation that changed the structure of Fremont County government.

“The purpose of this litigation was to seek justice for people who have historically been marginalized, and as a result, their most valuable voting rights have been diminished,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson overrode objections from Fremont County that the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ fees were too high. The county had asked the judge to reimburse the lawyers for their time at rates more typical of Wyoming lawyers.

The lead plaintiffs’ attorney on the case was Laughlin McDonald of Atlanta, the head of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. Johnson ruled that McDonald’s hourly rate of $425 an hour was appropriate.

Nearly $600,000 of the total fee bill goes to compensate McDonald for the more than 1,400 hours he worked on the case. Several other lawyers worked on the case as well, including some in Wyoming, who charged less.

Fremont County had asked Johnson last year to limit the legal fees to rates customarily charged in Wyoming courts. The county suggested limiting McDonald to $300 an hour while capping the plaintiff’s local lawyers to $200 instead of $250.

The issue of legal fees in the case had been pending before Johnson since early last year, when a federal appeals court upheld his ruling that struck down at-large county elections.

The Indian plaintiffs had argued that at-large elections diluted their vote and assured that residents of the Wind River Reservation, home to both tribes, wouldn’t be able to muster the votes to get one of their own elected to the county commission.

The Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool insured Fremont County through the trial and apparently will be responsible for paying the plaintiffs’ roughly $880,000 in trial legal fees.

Fremont County itself apparently will be responsible for more than $80,000 in costs and fees associated with its federal appeal of Johnson’s ruling in the case. The liability pool, which collects money from some 400 governmental entities around the state to handle their collective legal expenses, had refused to sanction the appeal.

Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett was not available for comment on Friday, his office said.

Lander lawyer Andy Baldwin and others in his firm represented plaintiffs in the case.

“The court has vindicated the importance and the value of this lawsuit to the democratic process in Fremont County,” Baldwin said Friday. “It was complex litigation, designed to seek justice.”

Baldwin said he believes the litigation achieved its purpose. “I think that with districts, you have a balanced representation in the county, across the board for voters. That was our intent, and I think that’s the result,” he said.

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