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Prop. 187 Foes Seek $3 Million in Legal Fees

Litigation: Lawyers who thwarted the measure aimed at illegal immigrants bill the state under federal rules. Wilson will vigorously dispute the request.

September 06, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles-based lawyers who crafted a successful legal strategy to thwart Proposition 187 are billing the state more than $3.1 million in attorneys fees and expenses incurred in fighting the 1994 ballot measure targeting illegal immigrants, court records show.

Gov. Pete Wilson, stymied thus far in his quest to implement the measure that he championed, will vigorously dispute the request from the various law firms and nonprofit organizations that worked to scuttle the measure, officials said.

"This is outrageous," said gubernatorial spokesman Sean Walsh. "It's the full-employment act for every liberal activist lawyer."

Added Ron Prince, co-author of the ballot initiative, which was approved overwhelmingly by California voters: "The sharks are circling."

But attorneys filing for the fees said the amounts are fair because they represent market rates and underscore the complex nature of the case and the massive volume of work required. The lawyers said the bills do not reflect thousands of additional hours undertaken on a pro bono basis in a battle that, in the view of Proposition 187 opponents, spared California a civil rights nightmare.

"This is an appropriate request," said Thomas A. Saenz of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is seeking almost $400,000 for more than 2,100 hours of work split among three attorneys and a paralegal.

Moreover, the anti-187 litigators placed much of the blame for the protracted litigation on what they termed an indecisive legal strategy by the governor, who switched tactics in midstream and frequently appealed rulings favoring opponents of the ballot measure. The state is continuing its appeals of the federal court ruling blocking the core provisions of Proposition 187.

"I think much of the work that was expended in this case was required by the governor changing course throughout the litigation," said Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, which wants almost $1.3 million for close to 4,000 hours of labor by five lawyers, the largest single demand by any organization.

In all, court papers show that bills were submitted by 31 attorneys, most of them working for such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center, MALDEF and the Western Center on Law & Poverty.

Five separate lawsuits were filed against Proposition 187 in federal court, and the cases were quickly consolidated before U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer in Los Angeles.

Pfaelzer found that Proposition 187 was in large part an illegal state "scheme" that conflicted with federal domain over immigration law. The legal fee requests are also before Pfaelzer.

Among all the lawyers seeking reimbursement, the largest amount was sought by Schey, who billed the state for 3,010 hours at $350 an hour--a total of $1,053,500. Next was Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, who is charging $464,621 for 1,304 hours, or $375 an hour.

Federal law allows attorneys for prevailing parties in civil rights cases to recover legitimate fees. The statute has helped nonprofit law firms mount costly legal battles against actions viewed as violating civil rights.

However, fee demands invariably generate more legal bills. That's because, as lawyers on both sides of the battle said, the fee request is likely the opening salvo in a war over costs that may drag on for years--perhaps even outlasting the litigation that has engulfed the ballot initiative itself.

Moreover, legal bills will continue to mount as appeals of Pfaelzer's ruling continue, perhaps to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The state of California should try to settle this issue right now and not fight it out," said Stephen Yagman, who is seeking $28,000 for his 70 hours of work, or $400 an hour--the highest hourly fee for any lawyer but a comparatively modest overall request.

The private law firm of Fred Kumetz and Stephen Glick in Los Angeles is seeking $197,000, based on an hourly billing rate of $325. Two other private attorneys, both of the large O'Melveny & Myers law firm, did more than 700 hours of pro bono work, the documents show.

Wilson, who made his support for Proposition 187 the centerpiece of his reelection effort, leaves office Dec. 1, and his successor will have to decide whether to continue the costly litigation. There is no estimate as to how much the state has spent in its losing battle to implement Proposition 187.

Wilson's staff is preparing papers before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the federal court ruling blocking imposition of much of Proposition 187, which was aimed at making illegal immigrants ineligible for public schools and other government services, while also speeding up their deportation.

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