One last slapSep 28, 2013 By Steven R. Peck
It is unjust -- but legal -- to require the county to pay ACLU's legal fees from the voting rights suit
Fremont County got a deeply unsatisfying notification a few days ago from a federal judge. He ordered that the county must pay nearly $1 million in legal fees generated by the plaintiffs in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the county based on complaints of voter discrimination.
The county, against all logic, lost that lawsuit. We since have restructured the form of county government. We have had to delay a general election from November to January. We have made our county commissioner elections far less interesting and competitive than any time in our history. And voter turnout for those elections has plummeted to embarrassingly low levels compared to our former percentages.
Less tangibly, but with equal power, the lawsuit slapped our county in the face by portraying us as racist and discriminatory in our election process --¬even though the suit was filed after the free, unencumbered and very popular election of an American Indian candidate to the Fremont County Commission under the old, supposedly discriminatory, election system.
It is tempting to rehash all of the reasons that the suit was filed needlessly and decided improperly, but that part of the episode is over. What still needs to be said is this: Fremont County has lost enough. Being required to pay the legal fees of the plaintiffs is outside the bounds of both common sense and fairness.
Apparently, however, it is not outside the bounds of federal law, which says that legal costs can be recovered by the plaintiffs in cases of civil rights judgment. That is what the judge has decided must occur.
It might not turn out to be that much of a financial hit to the county, at least up front. There is insurance to cover this sort of thing. This won't break the county's bank account (but that insurance premium probably will skyrocket).
In retrospect, Fremont County's relatively healthy financial situation may have been what attracted the attention of the ACLU in the first place. No doubt there are actual cases of blatant discrimination against American Indian voters elsewhere in this country that could have provided for more legitimate basis for suit, as well as a more beneficial resolution. As it is, the district system created by the lawsuit has changed nothing other than candidate interest and voter participation --¬both negatively. As for the district created specifically for Wind River Indian Reservation voters, the person elected to that seat is the one who held it before the lawsuit.
Why, then, did the ACLU come here and find a handful of supposedly discriminated-against citizens as a front for the lawsuit? Could it be because the ACLU knew that this was a county that had money and could pay the legal fee? Of course it could be.
Capping all the logical disappointments to the suit was the revelation afterward that the five citizens, supposedly so moved by the county's discriminatory voting practices that they filed suit, didn't even vote in the general election themselves.
And now another election year approaches, when fewer candidates will run, fewer voters will vote. And this, apparently, is what passes for an improvement in our county's election system.
Oops. Looks like we rehashed the whole case after all. Sorry about that. But even after the county lost the suit, even after the judge's ruling that our county must pay, and even as the statutorily justified ruling has been explained, it is worth noting, once more and for the record, that the principle of this thing still galls.