Two recent federal court cases will likely cost Utah taxpayers at least $500,000 in legal fees.
Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard wants $160,000 for four years of work on behalf of Utah State Prison inmate Mike Grimsley, whose eye was put out by another inmate.The National Center for Youth's Law in San Francisco wants $1.1 million for work its attorneys did on a lawsuit challenging Utah's child-welfare system.
The state hopes to slash the NCYL's bill down to $241,122 but expects to pay most of Barnard's bill.
"We got about $15,000 knocked off Mr. Barnard's request, but I don't think it will be reduced much from there," said Assistant Utah Attorney General Frank Mylar.
Grimsley's eye was put out in 1990 when another inmate broke out the window of his cell door and threw a mop handle into the cell while guards videotaped the incident.
U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba ruled last fall that the prison violated Grimsley's civil rights by failing to protect him and awarded the inmate $98,000. That award included unprecedented punitive damages against prison officials.
The NCYL settled with the state in August after suing last year over inadequacies in the state's foster care system that endangered children.
Since the class action suit prompted several major reforms in Utah's child-welfare system, Utah is required to pay the center's legal tab.
Utah taxpayers already paid $280,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union in a similar situation. The ACLU filed a class action suit several years ago over problems with the Utah State Prison's health-care system.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins ruled last summer that the lawsuit prompted the prison to redesign its health-care system. Hence, the state must pay all of the ACLU's legal bill, he ruled. However, Jenkins slashed $25,000 from the bill for expert witness fees.
In December 1991, NCYL began investigating allegations of the state's neglect of foster children it was supposed to protect. Unable to negotiate voluntary improvements with the Utah Division of Family Services, NCYL in February 1993 filed the suit on behalf of 1,500 foster children and 1,000 victims of abuse and neglect.
The suit contended Utah children were mired in the foster system too long while being bounced from family to family, medical needs were not fulfilled and children in some foster homes were neglected and abused.
Following the NCYL lawsuit and a critical legislative audit, the Legislature enacted the 1994 Child Welfare Reform Act. The law established training requirements for caseworkers and foster parents, provided more specification about procedures and limited children's stay in the system to 18 months before permanent placement.
The state Tuesday asked Alba to slash Barnard's award but doesn't expect to win in the matter.
Mylar argued that Barnard should be paid $120 an hour, instead of the $175 an hour that he sought.
However, three federal judges - U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce, and U.S. District Judges David Winder and Aldon Anderson - have previously ruled that Barnard should be paid $175 an hour.
Mylar is unhappy with that sum. He wants Barnard to prove that someone, besides the state of Utah, actually pays him that fee.
"The fee is supposed to be the prevailing market rate. But how can you say that's your rate if the only one who pays it is the government? I think that's artificially high."
In the past, state attorneys argued that $120 an hour is the prevailing legal rate and that's what Barnard should be paid.
Mylar said his argument hasn't been raised before in the state's previous battles with Barnard over his fees.
But in the matter of proof, Utah is its own worst enemy.
"The state says $120 an hour is the going rate in the neighborhood," Barnard said. "But we got some records from the Utah Attorney General's office that showed they hired Hal Christensen and paid him $200 an hour of your taxpayer dollars.
"So we said, `How can you say I'm only worth $120 an hour when you hire Hal Christensen and pay him $200 an hour.' "