COLUMBIA — It cost South Carolina $3.5 million to sue the federal government over the state’s voter ID law – but the federal government will have to pay some of that bill.
Late Friday, a court ruled that because the state was the “prevailing party” in the lawsuit, the federal government had to pay some of the state’s legal expenses. Specifically, the federal government must pay the cost of transcribing deposition testimony and audio recordings of the Legislature’s debate of the bill.
A spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said he did not know how much money the federal government would pay. The state has until Jan. 11 to file a revised bill with the court.
The $3.5 million price tag was more than three times Wilson’s original estimate. Friday morning, before the court issued its order, a panel of state lawmakers approved a $2 million budget increase for Wilson’s office to pay for the lawsuit – a figure that surprised Democrats.
The Attorney General’s Office heralded the court order as proof the state won the lawsuit. However, Democrats called that “smoke and mirrors,” noting the court upheld a much weaker voter ID law than the one that lawmakers originally had passed.
The judges walked a middle ground.
“South Carolina is the prevailing party,” the judges wrote. “To be sure, South Carolina did not obtain everything it sought. But the prevailing party test does not demand complete success.”
The S.C. Legislature passed a law in 2011 that required voters to show a photo ID before they vote. Republicans praised the law as protecting the integrity of elections. Democrats criticized the law as disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians – mostly minorities – who did not have a photo ID.
In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the law from taking effect. After South Carolina sued, a federal three-judge panel upheld the law, in part, because the state agreed voters could opt out of the requirement if they cited a “reasonable impediment” to getting a photo ID. The court also ruled local election commissions “may not review the reasonableness of the voter’s explanation.”
The Attorney General’s Office blamed the Justice Department for the high cost of the case. It accused the federal government of delaying the case by filing numerous frivolous motions, including challenging the 12-point font size on a document the state filed.
“The [court’s] decision was so emphatic, even the Department of Justice and interveners did not appeal it,” said Mark Powell, Wilson’s spokesman. “South Carolina was forced to pay a hefty price because a handful of Washington insiders refused to do the right thing.”
Attempts to reach Justice Department officials were unsuccessful.
But state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said Wilson’s claim the state won the lawsuit was “smoke and mirrors.”
“Had they [Republicans] agreed to the amendments we (Democrats) had put up ... there would have been no court challenge,” Hutto said. “He [Wilson] made concessions at trial that, had he made months earlier, would have saved the state millions of dollars.”
Most of the money – $3.4 million – went to Bancroft LLC, the Washington, D.C.,-based law firm of Paul D. Clement, a former solicitor general under George W. Bush and South Carolina’s lead attorney for the lawsuit. S.C. attorney Chris Coates also collected $147,578.78 while $10,880 went to S.C. attorney Butch Bowers.
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the budget subcommittee that oversees the attorney general’s budget, said he was not surprised with the $3.5 million price tag.
“It falls under my personal expectations rather than over it,” he said. “That was (a case) where, we weren’t just playing a part, we were the lead dog. That makes a difference.”
The Attorney General’s Office plans to use money from a fund of court settlements that it maintains to pay for the lawsuit. That fund has about $6.5 million in it.