To Fight Corruption, Voting Rights Groups Want To Make Everyone An Attorney General

Oct 10, 2014

Sometimes dealing with government misconduct requires public intervention; the "private attorney general" doctrine allows citizens to recoup associated legal fees.
Credit Brian Turner via Flickr

A Leon County circuit judge ruled Thursday the plaintiffs in Florida’s redistricting lawsuit can recover some of their legal costs, but not attorney’s fees.  The voting-rights activists are looking to a legal concept known as the “private attorney general” to make their request.

When state governments are involved in inappropriate or even corrupt activity, it can be difficult to hold them accountable.  The attorney general might seem like the right office to investigate and prosecute those cases, but there’s a built-in conflict of interest because attorneys general are also the top legal advisor for the state government.  Former Stetson Law School Dean Bruce Jacob says some places avoid that problem by installing a parallel office.

“They have what is called the ombudsman,” Jacob says, “who is a person, a lawyer – or I guess it could be a non-lawyer – but a person who looks out for the interests of the public.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise if that sounds familiar.  Many agencies and corporations have ombudsmen to investigate internal affairs and the impact of policies on the public.  But without a similar office in government, a legal doctrine known as the “private attorney general” has sprung up.  According to Jacob, this concept says the government should support private citizens who bring lawsuits alleging government misconduct.

“If a group such as the League of Women Voters does that, and they prevail, they are acting as kind of an attorney general for the public,” he says. “If they prevail, they certainly should be entitled to ask for – and hopefully get – attorney’s fees.”

But the “private attorney general” doctrine isn’t well established and has no judicial precedent in Florida – a point attorneys for the Legislature were quick to make. 

But David King, counsel for the League of Women Voters, says it’s time to change that.

“We think this is the appropriate case for that principle. When citizens vindicate public rights they ought to receive their attorney’s fees,” King says. “And citizens ought to be incentivized to bring this kind of litigation – if they’re successful it’s meritorious.”

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled Thursday the plaintiffs will be able to recover the costs associated with running the trial – bills like travel, hiring court reporters and preparing visual aids for court.  But Lewis stopped short of awarding attorney’s fees – the lion’s share of legal costs.  The lawyers for both sides will meet to determine how much the plaintiffs can reasonably claim after Thursday’s ruling, but King expects to launch an appeal to try to recover attorney’s fees as well.