SC Attorney General to Pay All Legal Costs in Lost Gay Marriage Case

In Depth

A federal judge has ordered South Carolina’s Attorney General to take a seat and pay all of the court and legal fees associated with a case challenging the state’s ban on gay marriage. Alan Wilson, the AG who’s now saddled with a whopping $135,000 in legal fees is investigating the ruling to see what his office should do next. One idea: pay up.

According to The Associated Press, the ruling stems from a 2014 case filed by Colleen Condon and her partner, Nichols Bleckley, a couple who were denied a marriage license. South Carolina was the only state in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to still heartily wave the banner against gay marriage at the time. In fact, The AP reports that the court had found a similar ban on gay marriage in Virginia unconstitutional, so there was precedent for South Carolina losing. But they didn’t want to go down without a fight.

Wilson, who claims the legal fees charged by the lawyers are excessive and not legitimate, was quickly quieted by Judge Richard Gergel, who pointed out that the 390 hours the seven lawyers spent on the case is actually entirely the state’s fault:

…one might reasonably ask why the state filed a 57-page brief raising a broad array of procedural and substantive issues, including a methodical attack on recent Fourth Circuit precedent,” Gergel wrote. The attorney general “cannot engage in a no holds bar defense and then complain” the opposing counsel spent too much time responding.
Gergel did offer Wilson’s office a compliment, however, saying it gave such a vigorous and passionate defense that the couple’s attorneys had to expend significant time addressing the issues.

That’s not only a burn, but it sounds like something that’s going to be hard to fight in an appeal. It’s not like Wilson (and his office) didn’t know how much lawyers cost or how much time they’d have to spend working on such a case and now that he’s lost there’s no way his office doesn’t owe the lawyers money. In fact, the attorneys who worked on the case were so tireless that Gergel awarded them nearly 90 percent of the fees they’d asked for:

The couple’s attorneys often worked late into the night on the case, said lawyer Malissa Burnette, who the order reimburses for nearly 100 hours of work.
“We had no choice but to research and write and defend our position,” she said. “We spent a great deal of time and had to work very hard over a short period but, ultimately, it was all worth it.”

Wilson argued that by being forced to pay the fees the government would be punishing the prosecutors who worked to protect the constitution, but Gergel once again dropped the gavel by pointing out that Wilson shouldn’t see the order to pay the fees a punishment but rather “compensation for civil rights attorneys who brought the case to the court and won it,” benefitting both themselves and the gay and lesbian population of South Carolina.

It’s unclear when the lawyers will receive their money—Wilson has 28 days to figure out what to do—but it’s another win for civil rights, regardless (if not for the tax payers whose money is going to be used to pay the fees). It’s just sad that government officials turn into whiny babies when they don’t get their way. 100 hours of work for a huge case among seven lawyers? That’s not excessive, it actually seems very budget-conscious. Someone should give those attorneys a tax break on that money. And then they should blow it all on a trip to The Cheesecake Factory to celebrate. Just an idea!

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Image via South Carolina Attorney General’s Office

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