A federal appeals court has overturned an order requiring state Sen. Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, to pay the League of Women Voters’ attorney fees stemming from the legal battle over gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Scarnati no longer has to personally pay $29,000 to the league’s lawyers to cover the fees resulting from Scarnati’s attempt to have the gerrymandering challenge litigated in federal court.
“The district court erred in awarding fees against Senator Scarnati in his personal capacity,” Third Circuit Judge Joseph Scirica wrote in the court’s opinion. “Named in the suit in his official capacity as president pro tempore of the state Senate, he was personally not a party in this action, and the court has no power … to sanction a nonparty. Because it neither found bad faith nor invoked any other source of authority to impose sanctions on Senator Scarnati in his personal capacity, we will not consider on appeal whether such sanctions would be appropriate.”
However, the Third Circuit upheld U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s ruling that attorney fees were owed, although the appellate court’s opinion was silent about who should have to pick up the tab.
The Public Interest Law Center represented the league in the case and its legal director, Mimi McKenzie, said the taxpayers would be footing the bill now.
“This decision underscores the problem of taxpayers having to pay to defend outrageous tactics by Senator Scarnati,” McKenzie said.
She added that Scarnati was “defending what was an indefensible a partisan map. Then he spends even more taxpayer money by avoiding having to pay for these misdeeds.”
Scarnati’s lawyer, Matthew Haverstick of Kleinbard in Philadelphia, said, “We’re satisfied that the court understood and respected the distinction between a public official’s governmental role and personal life.”
The league alleged that Scarnati’s removal of the case from state to federal court was frivolous and demanded $52,000—an amount that Baylson ultimately cut down.
In March 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court and a federal appeals panel each rejected separate challenges brought by state Republicans aimed at invalidating the state’s recently redrawn congressional map.
A specially convened three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that several state and federal legislators did not have standing to bring claims over the map, and later that day, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a separate request to stay implementation of the new congressional district map, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued in February.
The rulings came after several months of fighting over whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overstepped its authority when it determined the 2011 congressional map had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered, and then redrew the districts.
At the Supreme Court level, plaintiffs, who included Pennsylvania House of Representatives Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Scarnati, had sought an emergency stay of the new map. That request, made in Turzai v. League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, was denied without explanation by the justices.
At the district court level, the specially convened panel found that state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, who is chair of the Senate’s government committee, and eight members of the state’s congressional delegation did not have standing to challenge the map. The ruling in Corman v. Torres dismissed the case.