HOW DO YOU feel about being presented with a bill for $700,000 by Edwin Meese's lawyers? As a taxpayer, you may share in this assessment just as you already pay legal fees for thousands of other individuals and groups who win suits against the federal government. In cases involving civil rights violations, for example, where employees prove discrimination because of race, sex or age, or when individuals are harmed by public officials, courts often award attorneys' fees to successful plaintiffs. Federal law provides for this payment in order to encourage citizens to vindicate their rights in court even if they cannot afford the often burdensome legal expenses involved.
Since 1983, courts have also been authorized to reimburse the legal expenses of public officials who have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing after investigation by a special prosecutor. The new law -- a good one -- is a direct result of an investigation involving President Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, who was vindicated but left with legal bills of more than $67,000.
Mr. Meese is the first individual to qualify for reimbursement under the new law, and he is entitled to it since a special prosecutor found no grounds for criminal prosecution in an assortment of charges that had been leveled against him. But is the amount requested fair? The record is still sealed, but sources indicate that his attorneys have billed him at their customary rate, and it is high -- as much as $225 an hour -- but not unprecedented in large Washington firms. The lawyers were faced with a dilemma. If they gave Mr. Meese a reduced rate, as they might have done for another federal employee at his income level, they could have been accused of currying favor with a future attorney general, of giving a special break to Mr. Meese. But the Justice Department has a problem, too, because the administration has steadfastly opposed the award of attorneys' fees in excess of $75 an hour in other cases, though courts frequently award higher payments. Failure to object to the size of the fees requested in the Meese case would set a bad precedent in an area where the department is trying to keep a lid on costs.
The government spent only $320,000 in this investigation for the services of the independent counsel, five deputies and their administrative staffs. Private attorneys, of course, have overhead to pay and do not receive the same fringe benefits as government attorneys. But when the public eventually pays the bill, the fees won by private attorneys should not be wildly out of line with the government's own costs.
The Justice Department should file objections to the amount of this request, and the court should proceed to fix the fee. And the matter should be dealt with quickly -- before Mr. Meese's confirmation hearings in the Senate begin. There is already enough to argue about in those hearings.