Legal bills for Wyoming voting rights filed by Indians exceed $880K

By Ben Neary
Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) September 2010

Lawyers representing American Indians who won a voting rights lawsuit against Fremont County are seeking over $880,000 from the county.

Members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes sued Fremont County in 2005 charging that at-large voting for county commissioners violated federal law by diluting the American Indian vote. U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson ruled for the Indians this spring.

The legal team filed papers with Johnson during late September asking him to approve over $730,000 for legal fees, over $40,000 for paralegal work and over $100,000 for witness fees and other expenses in the case.

More than half the bill is for legal work by Atlanta lawyer Laughlin McDonald, head of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and a veteran of voting rights cases around the country. He billed for more than 1,200 hours on the Fremont County case at $425 an hour.

The fee request states that given the depressed socio-economic status of American Indians on the Wind River Reservation, they wouldn’t have been able to press their case without free representation from a civil rights organization such as the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

The Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool insures Fremont County. The pool collects money from some 400 governmental entities around the state to handle their collective legal expenses.

Pool Executive Director Mark Pring said Thursday the pool’s board will consider how to respond to the lawyers’ request for payment in the voting rights case.

“We’ve obviously never had one anywhere near this size, so I’m sure there will be some discussions,” Pring said of the payment request.

Pring said most cases the pool handles are covered by state law that limits awards against state government entities. He said the pool has amassed total reserves of close to $21 million since it was created in 1987.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Colorado public interest law firm, represents Fremont County in the voting rights case.

While the foundation has not been charging the county for its legal work, it has passed along bills for expert witnesses and other expenses to the liability pool. Cheyenne lawyer Richard Rideout has also worked on the case and has billed the pool for his time.

In response to a public records request from The Associated Press, Pring provided records showing that the liability pool has already paid out more than $203,000 to cover legal bills in the voting rights case since 2005, including expenses, witness fees and Rideout’s bills.

Fremont County recently filed notice in a federal appeals court in Denver that it intends to appeal Johnson’s order that it abandon at-large voting for county commissioners.

Pring said he intends to confer with Rideout about whether the liability pool should ask Fremont County to cover a portion of the legal bill filed this week with Johnson, and also to consider whether the pool wants to continue to be involved in the case on appeal.

Pring said he expects the pool’s board will consider the issue next month. He said the pool has not increased Fremont County’s premiums in response to the lawsuit.

Attempts to reach Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn and Mountain States Legal Foundation lawyer Scott Detamore for comment on Thursday were unsuccessful.