In 2005 pro-life activist Steven Lefemine, pictured right, sued the police department of Greenwood County, South Carolina, for stopping he and his band of 20 pro-life activists with Columbia Christians for Life from displaying graphic images of abortion at a busy intersection. Police maintained the group was creating a disturbance after receiving several complaints.
When police threatened him again at another protest, Lefamine sued in 2008 on the basis that his First Amendment right to free speech was being violated.
Lefamine won his case in federal district court. However, the judge denied Lefemine’s request for reimbursement of attorney fees. This despite the fact that, quoting the Los Angeles Times:
In the Civil Rights Attorneys Fees Act of 1976, Congress said civil rights lawyers who sued and won cases involving constitutional rights were entitled to claim “reasonable attorney’s fees.” The law was intended to bolster civil rights advocates who filed suits in that era over issues such as school desegregation.
The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State often exploit this law, which enables them to intimidate local governments, schools, etc., who fear monetary reprisal if a case against them is successful. They often throw in the towel before it gets that far.
Yet our pro-life friend was denied retribution.
Until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in this past Monday. Quoting the Chicago Tribune:
In its first decision since the 2012-2013 term officially began last month, the court reversed a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Steven Lefemine and Columbia Christians for Life, which had sought to recover the fees…..
A federal district court permanently barred the police from imposing content-based restrictions on Lefemine’s signs but refused to award attorneys’ fees.
The 4th Circuit later upheld the fee denial, saying the permanent injunction did not make Lefemine a “prevailing party.”
But in its unsigned decision, the Supreme Court said he was because the injunction had changed police behavior in a way that directly benefited him.
“Before the ruling, the police intended to stop Lefemine from protesting with his signs; after the ruling, the police could not,” the court wrote. “That ruling worked the requisite material alteration in the parties’ relationship.”
The Supreme Court returned the case to a lower court to decide if any “special circumstances” might make the award unjust.
Steven Fitschen, a lawyer for Lefemine, said attorneys’ fees in the case may reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that other protesters should welcome the decision.
“Protesters of all stripes, whose civil rights were violated by law enforcement, would have been at risk of losing fee awards,” Fitschen said in a phone interview.