Feeling the cost of loss in same-sex marriage suits

April 17, 2015

Clients typically have to pay the lawyers they hire, regardless of whether they win or lose in court. But civil rights cases against local and state governments are different. Under a law designed to encourage civil rights action against the government, winners of such cases can petition to recoup costs from the very jurisdiction that they sued. This week Reuters’ Joan Biskupic examined the ethical complexities of this law as it pertains to the spate of same-sex marriage suits in the U.S. in recent years.

As this Reuters graphic shows, attorneys’ fees for same-sex marriage civil cases can reach into the seven figures, topped by the $1.5 million awarded to lawyers in Pennsylvania’s Whitewood v. Wolf case. The winners in Wisconsin’s Wolf V. Walker suit recouped over $1 million even though the main firm involved, Chicago-based Mayer Brown, said it considered the case to be pro bono. The burden of the $368,827 in legal fees for the Bishop v. Smith case falls entirely on the local government in Tulsa County, Oklahoma.

The law encouraging civil rights actions provides for the recoup of “reasonable” fees. The question here is how much is too much.

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