When female academics filed a class-action suit against the University of Minnesota in the mid-1970s, it took half a decade to resolve the case in their favor and nearly as long to decide what to pay their lawyers. In the end, the court told the state to pay the lawyers $1.8 million in fees and bonuses.
Similarly, when noted constitutional lawyer Laurence Tribe challenged a state zoning law in winning a battle over a liquor license for a restaurant near Harvard University, he billed the state of Massachusetts $332,000 because the court found that the state had violated the Constitution.
Such large settlements may be the exception rather than the rule, but they provide statistical fodder for a Reagan administration assault on what it views as exorbitant awards of attorneys' fees in successful suits against the government.
In its view, a range of well-intentioned social policy laws -- covering everything from civil rights to consumer protection to environmental policy -- has turned into a kind of "Lawyers' Relief Act" for attorneys who sue Uncle Sam.
The administration is supporting legislation, introduced in the last Congress, that would limit what the government has to pay winning attorneys in such cases. It also would help out states that are sued successfully in connection with violations of the Constitution or civil rights laws.
But opponents, especially civil rights and public interest lawyers, see the effort to limit fees as an assault on the laws themselves. They say that if the administration succeeds in limiting attorney awards, lawyers will no longer be willing to take on the cases, which often can prove long and costly.
What makes the issue particularly sensitive is that many of the cases involved fall under broad civil rights laws. In particular, many states and cities have been sued for violations of the century-old Ku Klux Klan Act. The law, for instance, was used when lawyers for Linda Brown sued the Topeka, Kan., School Board in the case that led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision on equal education.
In 1976, the law was amended to provide that attorneys may recover their fees for the wide variety of cases brought under the law, a provision that administration officials argue has been exploited ever since.
The National Association of Attorneys General, representing state attorneys general, agrees that something needs to be done. Referring to the 1976 changes, it said in a report issued earlier this year: "Rather than simply facilitate the vindication of meritorious civil rights claims, as Congress intended, the act has operated to foster a flood of litigation on the entitlement to and amount of attorney's fees."
But others see if differently. "It's an effort specifically to cut back on civil rights," said Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of public interest groups. "But I think it's more pervasive than that. It's an across-the-board attempt to cut back on the whole range of social policy statutes."
"This is a liberal-conservative issue because most of the cases in which attorneys' fees are granted are citizens bringing civil rights cases," said Herman Schwartz, a civil rights lawyer and American University professor.
"Obviously, the more restrictions and limitations you impose on legal fees, the fewer of these cases will be brought," he said.
But administration officials say their efforts are part of their crusade to cut government costs and save taxpayers' money.
The administration first floated the idea of capping legal fees when it issued its annual budget in February 1982. In August of that year, Michael J. Horowitz, general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget, began circulating a draft of a proposal to make fees comparable to the price of a federal lawyer's work -- calculated then at about $53.16 an hour.
More recently, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) introduced legislation that, in the words of Deputy Attorney General Carol E. Dinkins, would "rein in the excessive awards to attorneys at the taxpayers' expense." The bill would cap attorneys' fee awards at $75 an hour, bar the award of bonuses or multipliers on top of that, and require that the winning party not deliberately prolong the proceedings and that the total fees not be "excessive."
The bill also would force plaintiffs who win monetary awards in suits against the government to pay as much as 25 percent of their lawyers' fees out of their settlement.
Courts generally are instructed to award legal fees based on the "prevailing market rate" for lawyers. But some consider the market -- particularly in the Washington, D.C., area where many of the cases are filed -- too high, resulting in skyrocketing, often unpredictable fee awards. Dinkins told a Senate subcommittee in September that bonuses and multipliers often inflate the awards even more, to upwards of $300 an hour.
Shwartz, Aron and others, however, contend that the administration has failed to prove its case that the fees, all told, are too high. For every case where the fee award is high, they say, there is another where a civil rights lawyer -- particularly in the South -- is awarded a fee that is too low.
Part of the problem is that there is no accurate accounting of how much fee awards cost the government. Estimates by administration officials run as high as $20 million a year, but opponents say the figure is no more than $3 million.
"I'm amazed they can't show any abuses," Schwartz said. "All they can show are claims."