A photo from the Ringling Brothers litigation and trial
A photo from the Ringling Brothers litigation and trial (Courtesy of The Humane Society of the United States)

The final act of a nearly 14-year legal fight between animal rights groups and the producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: a settlement.

A coalition of organizations that unsuccessfully sued circus producer Feld Entertainment Inc. will pay $15.75 million. The agreement ends contentious litigation over allegations the circus mistreated its Asian elephants, a charge Feld denied.

The settlement resolves two cases — the original lawsuit brought by the animal rights groups and a still pending racketeering action Feld filed against the groups and one of the plaintiffs firms concerning their handling of the elephant litigation.

Between the deal announced on May 15 and an earlier settlement, Feld would receive more than $25 million. That’s enough to fully reimburse the company for its legal fees, according to lead attorney John Simpson of Norton Rose Fulbright.

The outcome “makes amends for serious abuses of the judicial system,” Simpson said. Three other firms — Covington & Burling, Troutman Sanders and Hughes Hubbard & Reed — have worked on Feld’s defense since 2000.

News of the settlement came as lawyers for the animal rights groups were fighting Feld’s fees request. After dismissing the groups’ case for lack of standing, a federal judge in Washington ruled in 2013 that Feld was entitled to fees. In written statements after the deal went public, the groups said it made financial sense to settle, given the costs of continuing to fight in court. Had Feld won the racketeering case, they could have been on the hook for many millions more.

The animal rights groups didn’t admit wrongdoing. The settlement included a temporary gag provision requiring the groups and their lawyers to wait two hours after court papers were filed before speaking about the agreement. — Zoe Tillman

DEMS PUSH CAMPAIGN FIXES

Senate Democrats plan to move forward with a constitutional amendment to reverse U.S. Supreme Court decisions in a push to give greater authority to Congress and to individual states to regulate campaign finance. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, set a hearing for June 3 on an amendment introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. The amendment would undo the high court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo and, more recently, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. “The Supreme Court has equated money with speech, so the more money, more speech you get, the more influence on democracy,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. “What kind of a system is that? It’s wrong.” The flood of special-interest money in elections, Reid said, poses a “glaring” threat to the integrity of campaigns. “I understand that we Senate Democrats are proposing something that’s no small thing,” Reid said. — Todd Ruger

O’MELVENY REHIRES DONILON

The adviser President Barack Obama said “shaped every single national security policy of my presidency” will return to the law firm that shaped his career. Thomas Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013 and a veteran of the Clinton and Carter administrations, rejoins O’Melveny & Myers as a partner, vice chairman and a member of its management committee.

Donilon, 59, had been a top political mind in the administration throughout the hunt for Osama bin Laden; the National Security Agency surveillance scandal; the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya; and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. His experiences in government, he said May 15, will inform him as he works on corporate governance, cybersecurity and financial-services legal issues. “The legal business changes and evolves but, at its core, my life has really been focused on counseling and managing complex issues,” he said. — Katelyn Polantz

‘GET READY’ FOR YOUR DEPO

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon last week accused lawyers in the Shirley Sherrod defamation case of going on a “wild goose chase” for evidence. The judge’s solution: depose Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack as soon as possible. Vilsack made the decision to oust Sherrod, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator. A lawyer for one of the defendants said in court that the U.S. Department of Justice informed him Vilsack wouldn’t be available for a deposition because of his position as a senior government official.

Leon scoffed at the notion that the government could ­successfully fight a subpoena for Vilsack’s testimony. Leon said he’d consider any arguments the government made to block Vilsack’s testimony once he’s subpoenaed. But the judge said he doubted the government could make a convincing case, noting he has deposed cabinet officials in the past. Leon’s message for Vilsack: “Get ready.”

Sherrod sued the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and one of his colleagues, Larry O’Connor, for defamation in 2011 after they posted a clip of a speech she gave online and claimed it showed she discriminated against a white farmer. Sherrod was forced to resign. Vilsack later apologized — after the full speech was published — and offered her a new job. — Zoe Tillman

D.C. GUN LAWS SURVIVE

A Washington federal trial judge on May 15 upheld key provisions of the District of Columbia’s second attempt at gun regulation following the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of its law in 2008. In a 62-page opinion, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg rejected a challenge to the District’s basic registration requirement as applied to long guns as well as four registration requirements that applied to all guns. “The people of this city, acting through their elected representatives, have sought to combat gun violence and promote public safety,” Boasberg wrote. “The court finds that they have done so in a constitutionally permissible manner.”

A few months after the Supreme Court ­ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, the D.C. Council enacted the Firearms Registration Act of 2008 to create a new scheme for regulating firearms. That act was amended in 2012 following public hearings. Dick Heller, who successfully challenged the city’s gun laws in 2008, and four other District residents brought the latest lawsuit over the regulations. The challengers argued the D.C. Council lacked the regulatory authority to enact the scheme and that the regulations once again violated the Second Amendment. — Marcia Coyle

HARRIS RETURNS HOME

For Scott Blake Harris, it turns out that you can go home again. After two years as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Energy, two years as general counsel of Neustar Inc. and one year as a managing partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer, he’s returned as chairman of the firm he co-founded in 1998 — Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis. Known in his absence as Wiltshire & Grannis, the 32-lawyer firm represents clients including Microsoft Corp., DirecTV, Google Inc. and Sprint Corp. in telecommunications, technology and litigation matters. Harris left the firm in 2009, when he was appointed general counsel of the Department of Energy. In 2011, he left to become general counsel of Neustar, but “much to my surprise, I found I missed private practice.”

“There’s something special about going back to a firm you founded and that has your name on the door,” Harris said. In fact, the firm won’t even have to order a new sign — his former partners kept the old one in a closet. — Jenna Greene

RECOGNITION FOR KNEEDLER

Even after 125 arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court — more than any other lawyer now active — Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler still gets “very nervous” beforehand. And he still wears the same cufflinks on argument days that he wore for his first high court appearance in 1980. The cufflinks are not just a lucky charm; they belonged to his late grandfather, a longtime civics teacher in Pennsylvania.

“It’s a reminder of my roots,” he said. Kneedler’s long career at the U.S. Department of Justice has already gained recognition; he is a finalist for a so-called Sammy Award, given to exemplary federal employees by the Partnership for Public Service. Winners will be announced on Sept. 22.

In a rare interview, Kneedler insisted that “the solicitor general’s office is not a political place,” and has an “unbelievable esprit de corps” no matter who is solicitor general or president. At age 68, Kneedler is still going strong, with no plans to retire. “I still really love what I do,” he said. “It’s an exciting job, defending the work product of our democratic system — as imperfect as it may sometimes be.” — Tony Mauro

HOLD THAT FLIGHT TO D.C.

A judge has refused to force a top official of Equatorial Guinea to fly to Washington to contest the government’s effort to seize a multimillion-dollar jet from him. U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in Washington said Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue could respond to written questions, appear via video or talk on the phone.

Nguema’s attorneys at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Foreman, DeGeurin & DeGeurin fought the U.S. Department of Justice’s push to set up a deposition in Washington. The attorneys said Nguema “should not be subjected to the harassing and burdensome demands of the U.S. government.” DOJ lawyers argued a deposition in Washington would not burden Nguema “if, after all, Nguema remains the Gulfstream jet’s beneficial owner.” The lawyers in the case said the deposition would proceed via video “as soon as practicable.” — Mike Scarcella