Bert Rein outside the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder last year.
Bert Rein outside the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder last year. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL)

Lawyers who successfully challenged a key provision of the Voting Rights Act can’t recover $2 million in legal fees from the federal government, a federal judge in Washington ruled Wednesday.

Wiley Rein represented Shelby County, Ala., in its suit against the government. A divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down one of the challenged sections of the voting rights law in June 2013.

Shelby County’s legal team, led by Wiley Rein name partner Bert Rein, petitioned the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order the government to pay its fees, citing a section of the voting rights law that awards fees to prevailing parties. U.S. District Judge John Bates denied the request, finding Shelby County failed to meet the standard for collecting fees.

“Shelby County’s attorneys won an impressive victory before the U.S. Supreme Court. But as is true in most litigation, that victory came at a price,” Bates wrote. “Shelby County and its attorneys, not the American taxpayer, must foot the bill.”

Shelby County was subject to special anti-discrimination oversight under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The county was required under the law to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before making certain electoral changes.

The Supreme Court found Section 4, which detailed the formula used to determine which jurisdictions faced additional oversight, was unconstitutional, citing Congress’ reliance on outdated information.

Bates said Shelby County’s claims against the government ran contrary to the purpose of the voting rights law’s fee-shifting provision, which was to encourage lawsuits “seeking to vindicate individual voting rights.” Shelby County “was openly hostile to Congress’ policy choices,” Bates wrote, “attacking them as unconstitutional.”

To win fees, then, Shelby County had to prove the federal government took positions in the case that were “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” Bates said the county failed to do so.

Bert Rein said in an email that Shelby County’s lawyers “will study the decision closely and decide how best to proceed.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice could not immediately be reached.

Contact Zoe Tillman at On Twitter: @zoetillman.