IN BIG TOP FIGHT, THE LEGAL BILLS AREN’T SMALL

It’s a far cry from "The Greatest Show on Earth," but litigation over the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus’ treatment of elephants has certainly been a three-ring (and then some) affair.

After animal rights groups unsuccessfully sued circus producer Feld Entertainment Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the plaintiffs on March 29 to cover Feld’s attorney fees. Sullivan put off a decision on the amount for a later date, but Feld said in filings that it had spent more than $20 million defending the case during the past decade.

The organizations accused the circus of mistreating its Asian elephants. At the end of a bench trial in 2009, Sullivan dismissed the claims, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. Sullivan found that the lone plaintiff with a direct connection to the elephants, Tom Rider, a former elephant trainer for the circus, wasn’t credible because he’d been paid by the animal rights groups.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed Sullivan’s decision in late 2011.

The years of legal acrobatics meant steady business for Fulbright & Jaworski; partner John Simpson is the ringmaster for Feld’s defense. — Zoe Tillman

FOR FEDS, A REBUKE IN DOCUMENT DUST-UP

Advocates for open government last week heralded a ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that addressed what the court called an "important question of procedure" under the Freedom of Information Act: When can a requester sue in federal court?

The advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sued the Federal Election Commission in 2011. The agency claimed the suit was premature — that the group was obliged to continue to press for documents on the administrative level. The D.C. Circuit ruled against the government.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the panel, said the law requires an agency to make a determination within 20 days about the scope of the documents to be produced and any exemptions it will cite to keep information secret. "Although the agency may desire to keep FOIA requests bottled up in limbo for months or years on end, the statute simply does not countenance such a system, as we read the statutory text," Kavanaugh wrote.

CREW chief counsel Anne Weismann, who argued the appeal, said in a blog post that "this ruling means the FOIA works as we have always understood, at least before the FEC and DOJ tried to gut it." The D.C. Circuit sent the dispute back to the trial court for additional proceedings. — Mike Scarcella

COMPLIANCE? THAT’S ‘EASY’

With most lobbyists saying that compliance with their reporting obligations is "easy," the Washington influence industry passed the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s annual lobbying disclosure review released last week. At least 74 percent of disclosure filings and political contribution reports required of lobbyists met six compliance standards the GAO highlighted in its report. The main obligations the agency examined were the accuracy of rounded lobbying income or expenses; political donations reporting; disclosed former government positions held by lobbyists; the submission of political contribution reports; and the timely filing of quarterly reports for newly registered lobbyists. "Most lobbyists in our sample rated the terms associated with [lobbying] reporting as ‘very easy’ or ‘somewhat easy’ to understand with regard to meeting their reporting requirements," the report says. The agency also noted that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is set to review a request to pursue criminal or civil charges against two unnamed lobbyist organizations. Office spokesman William Miller declined to identify them. — Andrew Ramonas

JOINING THE TEAM

Covington & Burling bulked up its lobbying practice with the addition last week of the former staff director and chief counsel of the House Judiciary Committee. Richard Hertling, who did multiple stints on both Capitol Hill and with the U.S. Department of Justice, joined Covington’s public policy and government affairs practice as of counsel. At Main Justice from 2003 to 2007, Hertling served as acting assistant attorney general in the Office of Legislative Affairs and as the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy. The firm recently added former Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.) to its stable of lobbyists. Since bringing on Dan Bryant last fall from PepsiCo Inc., the firm has made a number of high-profile additions to its practice. The firm hauled in $73.1 million in 2011, ranking fourth in our Influence 50 survey. — Matthew Huisman

MARRIAGE EQUALITY LANDMARK

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. described it as politicians "falling over themselves" to endorse same sex marriage. It might be coincidence, but as Roberts said that during the U.S. Supreme Court’s arguments on same-sex marriage in March, a remarkable shift was taking place in the U.S. Senate on the issue. For the first time, a majority of senators support same-sex marriage, according to tallies by The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor. The national conversation surrounding the March 26 and 27 arguments prompted a number of senators to reverse their positions and come out in support of marriage equality: Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). When senators Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) announced their support on April 2, the majority threshold was reached. There now 53 senators who support gay marriage: 49 Democrats, two Republicans and two independents. — Todd Ruger

AWAITING WORD

Back in February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument over the merits of Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act, and the commentary following the hearing was nearly unanimous: the high court seemed poised to invalidate the provision. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., addressing the annual National Action Network convention in New York on April 4, didn’t sound entirely optimistic that the court would uphold the section, which restricts the ability of certain state and local jurisdictions to change their voting procedures. "As we await the court’s decision, I want to assure you that — no matter the outcome — the Department of Justice will remain committed to the aggressive and appropriate enforcement of all voting and civil rights protections, including every part of the Voting Rights Act," Holder said. The attorney general added that "we are not yet at the point where the most vital part of the Voting Rights Act can be described as unnecessary or a product of a flawed political process." — Mike Scarcella

SUIT SINKS FOR D.C. BOATHOUSE

The owner of a popular Washington boathouse was recently left adrift by a local federal judge. Jack’s Boat­house, a mainstay on the Georgetown waterfront since 1945, sued the city government and the National Park Service in January after the park service ended Jack’s lease. On March 28, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly denied a motion filed by boathouse owner Paul Simkin to halt his eviction. Simkin, represented by local solo practitioner Charles Camp, filed a notice of appeal the following day. Camp declined to comment. Media reports last week indicated that Simkin was leaning towards dropping the case, but he couldn’t be reached for comment. — Zoe Tillman