The district court erred in denying a fee award to eight voting citizens of Greensboro, North Carolina, who successfully challenged their county’s redrawing of Greensboro city council districts. The district court found that the defendant, the Guilford County Board of Elections, was an “innocent” party that had no hand in enacting the redistricting law and didn’t defend it during litigation.
But civil rights fee-shifting statutes aren’t meant to punish defendants; they’re meant to enable potential plaintiffs to obtain the assistance of competent counsel in vindicating their rights. Enabling civil rights plaintiffs to have access to courts to enjoin enforcement of unconstitutional laws furthers the national policy of facilitating the redress of civil rights grievances — irrespective of whether the party enjoined was responsible for enacting the law at issue.
Moreover, because the Board was the government department charged with enforcement of the redistricting law, its concerns about responsibility are ultimately about how North Carolina has chosen to structure its enforcement apparatus. As the instrumentality charged with the enforcement of the challenged law, the Board was the only necessary defendant and the only entity “legally responsible for relief on the merits.”
Thus, the district court abused its narrowly circumscribed discretion in holding that “special circumstances” existed in this case to justify denying fees ordinarily awarded.
Reversed and remanded for determination of an appropriate fee award. Judge Richardson dissented.