Brownback Examines Legal Fees for Judicial Activist Groups
Groups like the ACLU use civil rights law to force taxpayers to pay their attorney's fees
U.S. Senator Sam Brownback today chaired a hearing of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution to discuss a bill that would prevent judicial activist groups from using a 1970s-era civil rights law to force taxpayers to pay their attorney's fees in cases related to public displays of religious faith.
"Groups with a partisan political agenda should not have their legal costs reimbursed by state and local governments," said Brownback. "If a group like the ACLU wants to sue a city for displaying a religious image, it should pay the bill itself, not take advantage of a provision that was designed to reimburse poor individuals pursuing civil rights cases."
The Public Expressions of Religion Act, S.3696, would require parties to pay their own attorney's fees when litigating cases regarding the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from endorsing or promoting a particular religious view. This would remedy a nuance in the Civil Rights Attorney Fees Awards Act of 1976 which allows winning parties in Establishment Clause cases to recover attorney's fees.
At the hearing, Shannon Woodruff of the American Center for Law and Justice testified that, "While the attorney's fees statute of the civil rights bill was enacted for the laudable purpose of ensuring that those who cannot afford an attorney may still seek judicial protection of their basic civil rights, it produced the unintended effect of financing a fierce campaign against any and all expression or accommodation of religion in the public arena. This campaign, orchestrated by a few interest groups, is fueled not only by ideology but by the potential for large fee awards against government defendants."
Brownback added, "It's part of our democracy that a judicial activist group has the right to sue a local or state government for a perceived violation of the First Amendment. But it's wrong for these well-heeled activist groups to abuse civil rights laws so that their legal costs are paid for by taxpayers."
When faced with a lawsuit over an alleged violation of the separation of church and state, most local and state governments acquiesce because losing the case would mean paying the attorney's fees of the group bringing suit. For example, when the ACLU sued Los Angeles County to remove a small cross visible in the county's official seal, the county chose to remove the cross rather than face the risk of losing the case and paying the ACLU's legal bills. When several groups won a case in Alabama to remove a Ten Commandments display from a courthouse, taxpayers were forced to pay the ACLU and others nearly $550,000.
Brownback is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights.