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Holding Up Taxpayers
Lawyers in the D.C. gun case are demanding that the city pay them outsized fees.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

TALK ABOUT adding insult to injury. The lawyers who successfully challenged the D.C. gun ban are now asking the city's taxpayers to pay their legal fees. The tab: more than $3.5 million.

Under long-established law, plaintiffs lawyers who prevail in certain kinds of civil rights cases are entitled to demand that the loser pay their legal bills. These fee-shifting statutes were enacted in large part to encourage competent lawyers to take on important civil rights cases even though many do not result in money awards. The team of lawyers that took on the District's gun ban sued under such a provision, arguing that prohibiting District residents from possessing handguns in their homes violated the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Having won the landmark case this summer before the Supreme Court, the lawyers are entitled to compensation. What they are not entitled to is the kind of windfall they are seeking.

The lead lawyer in the case, Alan Gura, logged 1,661 hours on the case since taking it on in 2003, according to an Aug. 25 court submission. He has asked the D.C. federal trial judge overseeing the case to pay him $557 per hour; four other lawyers in the case are also seeking that rate. Two other, less experienced lawyers who worked on the case are asking for rates of $494 and $285 an hour, respectively.

Mr. Gura and his colleagues claim the $557 figure is fair because it reflects the going rate for District lawyers who have the same number of years of experience as they do. But this does not take into account the fact that these lawyers are usually with Washington megafirms that have Fortune 500 companies as clients -- and that even these companies get discounts from those astronomical rates.

For Mr. Gura, $557 an hour for 1,661 hours would mean a payday of $925,177. But it doesn't stop there. He argues that because of the "exceptional" nature of the case and the excellent results he secured for his client, he and the others are entitled to double the fees. In Mr. Gura's case, that translates to about $1.85 million -- or roughly $1,100 an hour. Even superstar lawyers in the District do not routinely command such rates.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan should pare back the hourly rate using an index of legal fees calculated by the Justice Department for such cases. At the very least, he should deny the request for double fees. The law requires that Mr. Gura and team receive compensation, but it does not require District residents to foot a bill that would make millionaires of its former adversaries.

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