By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday denied $2 million in legal fees sought from the federal government by conservative lawyers who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 to strike down a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a lower court's decision to reject the fee request, which was made to the government by lawyers representing Shelby County, Alabama.
The three-judge panel said the fees provision applies only when the case advances the goals Congress wanted to promote. As the aim of the challenge was to narrow the scope of the law, not to enforce individual voting rights, no legal fees are available, the court found.
"Shelby County's lawsuit neither advanced Congress's purpose nor performed some service Congress needed help to accomplish. It defies common sense and ignores the structure and history of the act to think otherwise," Judge Thomas Griffith wrote on behalf of the court.
In the United States, each side in a lawsuit pays its own attorneys' fees, but federal law allows individuals who win certain civil rights cases against the government to be reimbursed for their lawyers' fees.
Over the years in voting rights disputes, that has allowed advocates for black and Hispanic voters who successfully challenged legislative redistricting maps or polling practices as discriminatory to recoup fees.
Shelby County won a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2013 that curtailed a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring nine states, mainly in the South, to obtain federal approval before changing election rules.
Congress adopted the provision of the voting rights law in question to make sure that states with a history of discrimination were not instituting policies that would hurt black, Hispanic or other minority voters. Writing for the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts deemed the provision outdated and an unconstitutional burden on the covered states.
After that 2013 decision, members of the Shelby County legal team led by Washington lawyer Bert Rein argued that they should qualify for fees because they vindicated constitutional equality guarantees.
The case is Shelby County v. Lynch, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 14-5138.
(Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Will Dunham)