Voting rights

Voter ID lawsuit cost state $3.5 million, but court rules feds must cover some expenses

But court rules feds must cover some of the costs

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 4, 2013 

  • ‘Other funds’ budget adjustments

    The Joint Other Funds Committee on Friday granted budget adjustments of $4.8 million for seven state agencies, including:

    • $272,000 for State Treasurer Curtis Loftis to pay for an audit of his office’s computer security. Loftis said his office has between $8 billion and $10 billion of state money invested at any one time and deals with a lot of sensitive information

    $587,000 for the Commission on Higher Education’s endowed chairs program

    • $887,964 for the State Election Commission to pay for the 2012 primary elections. The money does not include costs for the special election in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District to replace Tim Scott, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace Jim DeMint. • $2,067,500 for the Patriots Point Development Authority to, among other things, help pay for the mandated 3 percent state employee pay raise • $100,000 for the Department of Consumer Affairs to pay for the state employee pay raise and “other operating expenses” • $2 million for the S.C. Attorney General’s Office to pay for its lawsuit against the federal government over the state’s voter ID bill

    NOTE: The committee deferred a $1 million request from the Department of Public Safety that would have put computers in 153 police cars across the state. Lawmakers were concerned with how Director Leroy Smith would choose which agencies got the money. Lawmakers asked Smith to come back to the next meeting and make his request again.

— It cost South Carolina $3.5 million to sue the federal government over the state’s voter ID law – but the federal government will have to pay some of that bill.

Late Friday, a court ruled that because South Carolina was the “prevailing party,” the federal government had to pay some of South Carolina’s expenses.

A spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said he did not know how much money the federal government would pay. The state has until Jan. 11 to file a revised bill with the court.

The $3.5 million price tag was more than three times Wilson’s original estimate. Friday morning, before the court had issued its order, a panel of state lawmakers approved a $2 million budget adjustment for Wilson’s office to pay for the lawsuit – a figure that surprised Democrats.

But sources inside the Attorney General’s Office heralded the court order as validation that it had won the lawsuit. Democrats called the celebrations “smoke and mirrors,” noting that the ruling upheld a much weaker voter ID law than lawmakers originally passed.

The judges, for their part, walked the middle ground.

“South Carolina is the prevailing party,” the judges wrote in their decision. “To be sure, South Carolina did not obtain everything it sought. But the prevailing party test does not demand complete success.”

South Carolina passed a law in 2011 that required voters to show a photo ID before they can vote. Republicans praised the law as protecting the integrity of elections. Democrats criticized the law as disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians – mostly minorities – who did not have a photo ID.

In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the bill from taking effect. South Carolina sued, and a federal three-judge panel upheld the law in part, they said, because voters could opt out of the photo ID requirement if they had a “reasonable impediment” and signed an affidavit. The court also ruled that local election commissions “may not review the reasonableness of the voter’s explanation.”

The state Attorney General’s Office blamed the U.S. Department of Justice for the high cost of the case. They accused the federal government of delaying the case by 120 days by filing numerous frivolous motions, including challenging the 12-point font size on a document the state filed.

“The Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., bears responsibility for the litigation costs,” said Mark Powell, Wilson’s spokesman. “The decision was so emphatic, even the Department of Justice and Interveners did not appeal it. South Carolina was forced to pay a hefty price because a handful of Washington insiders refused to do the right thing.”

Attempts to reach Justice Department officials were unsuccessful. But state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said it was “smoke and mirrors for them to say they won that case.”

“Had they (Republicans) agreed to the amendments we (Democrats) had put up to the bill, it actually would have been less expansive than what the court came up with because there would have been no court challenge,” Hutto said. “He (Wilson) made concessions at trial that had he made months earlier, would have saved the state millions of dollars.”

Most of the money – $3.4 million – went to Bancroft, LLC, the Washington-based law firm of Paul D. Clement, a former solicitor general under George W. Bush and South Carolina’s lead attorney for the lawsuit. South Carolina attorney Chris Coates collected $147,578.78 while $10,880 went to South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers.

The Attorney General’s Office plans to use money from its court settlements fund to pay for the lawsuit. The fund has about $6.5 million in it. Because it is not tax money or federal money, it falls under the category of “other funds.”

State agencies can request mid-year budget adjustments using other funds. The Office of State Budget has the final say on the requests but generally follows the recommendations of the state lawmakers on the Joint Other Funds Committee.

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