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Law firm wants school district to pay $1.8M

  Legal Business  -   POSTED: 2007/09/07 12:53

The law firm that represented parents in their case against Seattle Public Schools' race-based admissions policy before the U.S. Supreme Court is seeking nearly $1.8 million in fees from the school district. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that the policy, which used race as one of several "tiebreakers" in deciding who gets into popular high schools, was unconstitutional.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority, said in a separate opinion supporting his decision that racial balance is a worthy goal for school districts and that districts can use other methods to achieve it.

That opinion has both the district and the parent group, Parents Involved in Community Schools, declaring victory. It's one reason the district, which spent about $434,000 on its portion of the seven-year battle, doesn't believe it should have to pay the plaintiffs' fees.

Technically, the parents group still has to get a U.S. district judge to declare them the "prevailing party," said Seattle Public Schools attorney Shannon McMinimee.

McMinimee says it's "disingenuous" for the law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, to go after money when the firm took the case pro bono. But firm spokesman Mark Usellis said "pro bono" means their clients don't have to pay.

"The thing that's really important to us in a civil-rights case is that Congress specifically and explicitly wrote into the law that if the government is found to have violated citizens' civil rights, then the prevailing party should seek fee recovery," he said.

Most governments can argue, as Seattle Public Schools is, that they don't have much money. But going after the fees helps deter other government bodies from violating civil rights, Usellis said.

The parents who sued the district in 2000 did not seek damages but asked the court to force Seattle to stop using the race-based tiebreaker that prevented their children, who are white, from attending Ballard High School. The district did, in 2002, but continued to fight for the policy in court, eventually making it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether to award the fees to the firm. If the firm wins, the fees likely wouldn't be covered by the district's insurance carrier, McMinimee said. So the money would have to come out of the district's $490 million general-fund budget.


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