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South Carolina Voter ID Legal Fees Must Be Paid Partly By Feds, Court Rules

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A panel of federal judges ruled that the federal government must pay South Carolina's legal fees in a voter ID case. The law was signed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File).
A panel of federal judges ruled that the federal government must pay South Carolina's legal fees in a voter ID case. The law was signed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File).

WASHINGTON -- Federal taxpayers will have to foot the bill for some legal fees incurred by the state of South Carolina when it successfully fought to implement its voter ID law over the Justice Department's objections, a panel of federal judges ruled Friday.

The same three D.C.-based federal judges who ruled in October that South Carolina could not implement the law in 2012 said in a court order that because the state successfully argued it could begin implementing the law in 2013, it "is the prevailing party" in the case. Justice Department lawyers had previously argued that "neither party fully 'prevailed' in this complex case" and said each party should bear its own costs and expenses.

"To be sure, South Carolina did not obtain everything it sought. But the prevailing party test does not demand complete success," the court ruled on Friday. "South Carolina has undoubtedly achieved some of the benefit it sought: it obtained preclearance of Act R54 for elections in 2013 and subsequent years."

South Carolina spent an estimated $3.5 million on the lawsuit, which was filed after the Justice Department objected to the voter ID law in Dec. 2011.

The federal government will have to pay a small portion of that figure under the court order. The state had requested $90,379.59 in reimbursement from DOJ in October, but the court ruled that it wasn't entitled to the whole amount and requested the state submit an updated bill removing certain fees by Jan. 11.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the decision.

Of the total amount South Carolina spent on the lawsuit, $3.4 million went to Bancroft, LLC, the law firm of former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, The State newspaper reported. Former Justice Department attorney Chris Coates received $147,578.78, and $10,880 went to South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers, according to the paper.

South Carolina and several other sections of the country with a history of racial discrimination are required to have changes to their voting laws precleared by either the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. A separate panel of federal judges rejected Texas' voter ID law in late August.

During the trial, lawyers for South Carolina argued that a provision of the law allowing voters with a "reasonable impediment" preventing them from obtaining photo identification to vote anyway resolved any concerns about the law's disparate impact on minority voters. The court ruled in October that local officials could “not review the reasonableness of the voter’s explanation" and had to accept the excuse at face value. After the decision, the Justice Department took credit for what it called "broad modifications" made to the law in order to respond to the attorney general's concerns that it would exclude minority voters.

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