Attorneys get $66,000 in gay-marriage case

The lawyers who successfully challenged Arkansas' gay-marriage ban deserve compensation, but the money they requested -- as much as $686,998 -- was "exorbitant," Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza said Wednesday in awarding them $66,000.

Cheryl Maples of Searcy and Jack Wagoner of Little Rock will split the money, with each collecting $30,000 for the time they put into the lawsuit and another $3,000 for expenses, Piazza announced at a hearing Wednesday to resolve the attorneys' request for compensation.

"I think that's the fair thing to do," he said.

The money is to be paid by the state defendants, the Department of Health and the Department of Finance and Administration.

Those agencies had administered the ban, a combination of voter-approved constitutional amendment and an assortment of Legislature-written statutes.

A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who represents the agencies, said she was pleased that Piazza had not given the lawyers as much as they wanted.

"Attorney General Rutledge is pleased that Judge Piazza recognized that the excessive and unreasonable fee request was unwarranted," spokesman Judd Deere said.

The judge agreed not to impose any payment requirement on the six other defendants: the six county clerks in Conway, Lonoke, Pulaski, Saline, Washington and White counties. They had argued that they shouldn't be forced to pay, since they were only following the law that required them to deny marriage licenses to the plaintiffs.

Piazza opened the hearing by saying he had already made up his mind on how much the lawyers should be paid.

He said he had decided on the compensation amount after reading all of the pleadings filed during the three months that the sides have been arguing about whether the attorneys should be compensated.

The judge said Maples and Wagoner were entitled under the law to be reimbursed for their time and expenses for the work they put into their lawsuit.

From filing to finish, the lawsuit initiated by Maples took 10 months to be resolved in a May 2014 decision by the judge that homosexual couples had the same right to marriage as their heterosexual counterparts.

Piazza said the attorneys had taken up the effort to challenge the gay-marriage ban when it was like tilting at windmills.

But the judge said he also had to recognize that the litigation was not as expensive as civil lawsuits typically are because the lawyers were not required to interview witnesses and conduct a full-fledged trial.

"The problem for me is there was no trial, no depositions," the judge said.

Piazza said he felt the lawyers had met the standard as prevailing parties for compensation despite the Arkansas Supreme Court never resolving the state's appeal of his decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June that legalized gay marriage nationwide made the state's challenge to Piazza's ruling moot, so the Arkansas Supreme Court justices said they didn't need to rule on it.

The judge offered the attorneys the opportunity to put on evidence to show why they were entitled to compensation, but told them that effort would only be a formality in the event of any appeal because his mind was made up on how much they should be paid.

Maples had asked the judge in a recent motion to forgo a hearing and rule based on the pleadings submitted.

Still, anticipating a full hearing on the questions, both sides had brought well-known lawyers who have endorsed the way they calculated compensation and were prepared to testify Wednesday. Wagoner had Philip Kaplin while Maples had John Wesley Hall.

Wagoner, who had asked for $95,748 to $141,880, told the judge he was pleased with the compensation.

Wagoner said he had taken up the cause without thinking of payment and that he and three of his lawyers had put in more than 404 hours over about 11 months of litigation.

"We didn't do this for the money," he told the judge.

Maples did not speak at the hearing but questioned the judge briefly about his reasoning afterward.

She told the Arkansas Times after the hearing that she was disappointed in the decision, calling it a "slap in the face" after she had spent much of her life savings financing the litigation.

She told the Times she didn't think she could afford to appeal Piazza's ruling either financially or physically. Supporters on Wednesday set up an account on the fundraising website Indiegogo to collect money to fund her appeal.

Maples had sought between $345,825 and $686,998, representing 1,365 hours working on the case over almost 28 months, from conception of the lawsuit to appeal.

Both Wagner and Maples reported that they had to pass up lucrative paying work to devote time to the lawsuit.

The lawyers said the lowest amount they had requested represented their actual time and expenses devoted to the lawsuit.

But they had argued that they were entitled to an enhanced pay scale based on state and federal case law that has established grounds for attorneys to seek payment at an enhanced hourly rate to compensate for the risks they take with such litigation.

Both lawyers are pursuing compensation requests on similar grounds in federal court, where they also represented another group of same-sex couples who challenged the Arkansas ban.

Wagoner has petitioned for $49,754 in attorney fees while Maples has asked for $15,900 in fees and $511 in costs in the federal case.

Wagoner has already been compensated $7,463 for appeal work his law firm did related to the federal litigation. He had asked for $12,897.50 for 73.7 hours of work.

Wagoner and Maples have been at odds for the past two months over their fee petitions before Piazza, with Wagoner disputing Maples' billing and Maples questioning Wagoner's motives for criticizing her.

There was no sign of rancor between them at the 10-minute hearing, but they also did not sit together.

The judge did single out for praise the work of the lawyer representing the state, Assistant Attorney General Colin Jorgensen, praising him as one of the best lawyers who has come through his courtroom.

"Every time you come in here, you do such a good job," Piazza said.

Metro on 10/15/2015