Lee County faces $186,000 claim in remap suit
By Philip Moulden
Lee County supervisors are battling a $186,000 legal bill submitted by attorneys for black residents who sued in 1991 to force creation of a black-majority supervisor district.
A black majority district was approved by supervisors in late 1994, three years after the suit was filed, and the first black elected to the Board of Supervisors in this century took his seat this month.
Board attorney Bill Beasley contends the lawsuit could have been settled much earlier if blacks had not demanded special elections to fill supervisor seats before last November’s balloting. The plaintiffs are not entitled to the legal fees, the county argued.
But if the claim is approved, the protracted redistricting fight will have cost county taxpayers more than $343,000 in legal fees. The county’s lawyers have been paid almost $157,000 to date.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Samuel Walters, with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., claimed six lawyers worked for more than 1,000 hours to gain the new district plan. Their time and related expenses boosted the bill submitted through U.S. District Court in Aberdeen to $186,371.
New District 4 Supervisor Tommie Lee Ivy, who was not a party to the lawsuit when it was filed but later was included under class action status, said he believes he could not have been elected without the change. The new District 4 has a 53 percent black voting-age majority, according to 1990 census figures.
“I believe it’s appropriate for the county to pay the cost. I’m on the board now … but I wouldn’t have been without (blacks) going to court. We needed a black representative … and that’s the only way we had to get on it,” Ivy said.
“I wish there had been some way to solve the problem without going through all this …,” he added.
But Beasley contends in a recent court filing that the claim by plaintiffs is excessive and unreasonable and should not be awarded because the plaintiffs did not win their case.
“Central to the plaintiffs’ requests for relief in this cause was the holding of special elections in Lee County,” Beasley’s response said. “The plaintiffs’ repeated efforts were unreasonable, completely unsuccessful and resulted in both parties incurring substantial additional expense. As unsuccessful litigants on this regard, no fees or expenses should be awarded as they were clearly not the prevailing party.
“From the beginning I attempted to negotiate a settlement of this case with the attorneys for the plaintiff,” Beasley said in related papers. “Until Aug. 19, 1993, the plaintiffs were unwilling to settle the case under any conditions whatsoever which did not include special elections and shortened terms of office for the supervisors elected in 1991.”
In November 1991, two months after plaintiffs sued, an all-white board was elected using districts created in 1983. The U.S. Justice Department twice refused to approve new districts drawn by the board, and supervisors filed an action in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., in early 1993 in an effort to force justice officials to approve five white-majority districts. The county withdrew that suit the following December.
U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. is expected to rule on the plaintiffs’ claim after getting a response from their attorneys on Beasley’s filing. Walters declined last week to discuss that response, saying it will be made in court.
“I don’t think there’ll be any hearing on it or anything,” Beasley said.”It would be unusual if there was.”