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Law a Jackpot for Lawyers Who Wrote It, AP Says

Seattle University School of Law professor Joaquin Avila says he was the primary author of the 2002 California Voting Rights Act, drawing on advice from Robert Rubin, legal director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and others. Since then, all of the $4.3 million collected in settlements under the law has gone to Avila, to Rubin's committee and to lawyers working with them, The Associated Press found in its review of these cases.

So far, all of the cases have been initiated by Rubin's committee or by Avila, who is also a member of the committee. There is nothing illegal about this, AP says. "But it is unusual that after seven years all legal efforts are so narrowly focused, especially since Avila told lawmakers when he testified for the bill in 2002 that he expected other attorneys would take on cases because of favorable incentives written into the measure."

The law targets "at large" elections across an entire municipality or district where a majority of voters can dominate the ballot and block minorities from winning representation. It authorizes prevailing plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees and costs, but not pay them if they lose.

Avila tells AP the cases have played out this way because they are complex and few attorneys have the expertise to bring them. Both he and Ruben say their roles in drafting the law should not overshadow its importance and the need to use the courts to end years of injustice at the polls. Avila, who bills his work in these cases at $725 an hour, would not tell AP how much he has earned in fees. Ruben is paid a salary but bills his work at $700 an hour.

The law itself is controversial. Critics say it is unnecessary, flawed and even "baffling." But Avila -- who directs the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at Seattle University -- contends the need for the law is demonstrated by studies such as one that depicts dozens of school districts in California with a majority of Hispanic students but few, if any, Hispanic school board members. "When you look at the local elected leadership, most of it is still white," he says.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on November 16, 2009 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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