Guilford County tried to be nice to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) in 2015 when it found itself being sued over a law it had nothing to do with, but playing nice didn’t work.
Guilford County is now being sued by the SCSJ for about $600,000 in legal bills from the case where the SCSJ and Greensboro sued the Guilford County Board of Elections over the Greensboro redistricting passed by the state legislature in 2015.
If you think that sentence didn’t make any sense, it’s because it doesn’t, but it’s still accurate.
Because of a weird court ruling, when the Greensboro City Council and the SCSJ didn’t agree with the way the North Carolina General Assembly had revised the Greensboro City Council districts and form of government, they sued the Guilford County Board of Elections, which had absolutely nothing to do with the new law. But due to a federal court ruling, because the Guilford County Board of Elections would administer the elections held under the new law, it could be sued and was.
Greensboro and SCSJ won the lawsuit, which was hardly a surprise because Guilford County didn’t put up any defense.
Imagine a basketball game where one team, in protest over a bad schedule, decides not to put a team on the court. The team is there, sitting on the bench, but when the referee blows the whistle for the jump ball at the beginning of the game, no one goes out on the floor. Which team do you think would win? Certainly not the one sitting on the bench.
This is essentially what Guilford County did when it discovered it was being sued. Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne was in the courtroom but didn’t say much other than he didn’t think Guilford County was the party that should be sued.
It’s a reasonable opinion but the reality that is now coming home to roost is that Guilford County was the party being sued. Since Guilford County didn’t mount any defense, it had no chance to win the case and avoid being sued for legal fees.
At the end of the trial, Payne asked that Guilford County not be held liable for the SCSJ legal fees. Federal District Court Judge Catherine Eagles said she would make that determination at a later time.
So now the SCSJ is suing Guilford County again, this time for the $600,000 in legal expenses it incurred in the first lawsuit.
Some people say that it didn’t matter what Guilford County did, that once the case was placed in front of Eagles – who was appointed by President Barack Obama – the case was decided. They say that Eagles was going to rule in favor of the liberal SCSJ and the Greensboro City Council made up of eight Democrats and one Republican over the Republican-led state legislature if there was any legal avenue to do so.
Eagles indicated how she was going to rule on the case before she heard it, by granting a temporary restraining order requiring that the Greensboro 2015 elections be held according to the five-district, three at-large and mayor elected at large system instead of the new system passed by the legislature based on a bill sponsored by state Sen. Trudy Wade, with eight districts and the mayor elected at large.
But Guilford County could have defended itself. Evidently there was some belief that if Guilford County didn’t defend itself that the SCSJ wouldn’t come after Guilford County for legal expenses, but that turned out not to be true.
Then again, if Guilford County had mounted a defense, it might have won because, although the case had a lot of flash, there wasn’t much substance.
One of the key points of the case appeared to be that, of the eight districts, there was one that could not have been drawn randomly.
When has a legislative district in North Carolina ever been drawn randomly? The law doesn’t require that districts be drawn randomly. In fact, the law requires that race be a consideration in drawing districts, and race was a consideration.
It was the same argument that has been used against other districts drawn by Republicans, that too many black voters were placed in minority-majority districts, and the courts keep ruling that districts have to be redrawn.
One group, Citizens for Fair Elections, led by Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston and former Greensboro City Councilmember and former state Rep. Earl Jones, was granted the right to intervene in the case on behalf of Guilford County. Alston and Jones argued that the new eight-district system would provide more minority representation on the City Council than the current system.
Citizens for Fair Elections dropped out of the lawsuit without stating a reason, but those involved with the group say that it was because they discovered they would likely be sued by SCSJ for legal expenses if SCSJ won the case.
Guilford County could have asked the state legislature to intervene in the case, which would have made sense from a practical standpoint because the suit was over the actions of the legislature, not of the Guilford County Board of Elections. And if the state had intervened, then the state would also share in the legal fees, if any are awarded.
Now some Guilford County commissioners are expressing outrage that they are being sued for legal fees. It seems likely that the county will vigorously defend itself against this second lawsuit, once again about an issue that the county had no control over.
Guilford County may hire outside attorneys to argue the case for why Guilford County shouldn’t be responsible for the SCSJ legal expenses. So, any way you look at it, Guilford County is probably facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Guilford County could hire outside attorneys to represent it in this case and lose, meaning the taxpayers will be on the hook for Guilford County’s legal bills for defending the case and all or part of the $600,000 SCSJ is requesting for the original lawsuit.
The Guilford County commissioners not taking any action in the original lawsuit might have been because the redistricting was an extremely partisan issue and the fight was between Greensboro and the state. But the redistricting was passed by the Republican General Assembly in Raleigh. The Guilford County Board of Commissioners has a Republican majority. One might also think that the Republican commissioners would want to defend the actions of their Republican colleagues in the legislature, or at least invite the Republicans in the legislature to come defend themselves even though they weren’t being sued.
Greensboro did agree not to go after Guilford County for legal fees, but Guilford County and Greensboro have at least 37 different contracts. Guilford County gives Greensboro about $1.7 million for the Greensboro library system, something the county is not obligated by law to do. It has certainly been used as a bargaining chip in the past.
Guilford County could have used some of its bargaining power to put pressure on Greensboro, either not to sue the county at all or at the very least to get an agreement from the SCSJ not to go after Guilford County for legal fees. Although Greensboro is not suing for legal fees, its partner in the lawsuit, SCSJ, is and Greensboro has some responsibility for that.
No one wants to be sued. But when faced with a lawsuit, most people hire attorneys and do the best they can to win in court.
It is up to Judge Eagles to decide the amount that she awards SCSJ. She could give them the full $600,000 or nothing or anything in between. But once again, it is a liberal organization suing a Republican-led Board of Commissioners, so it seems likely that some amount will be awarded to SCSJ.
Judges seem to like to split the baby, so Eagles could pare the legal fees down to a more reasonable amount and award that. Then again, the federal courts have not been kind to Republicans in election cases recently.
Here is something Greensboro taxpayers may want to consider: If SCSJ wins its lawsuit, then Guilford County taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the lawsuit. Since all Greensboro taxpayers are also Guilford County taxpayers, Greensboro taxpayers will have already paid the bill of several hundred thousand for their own portion of the original lawsuit and then get to pay again through their Guilford County taxes for the SCSJ portion of the lawsuit. And if Guilford County hires outside attorneys to defend itself in this latest lawsuit, the taxpayers of Greensboro, who make up more than half of the taxpayers of Guilford County, will pay their share of that bill also.
It seems whatever happens the taxpayers are going to get the short end of the stick.