The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a federal judge cannot award more money to winning lawyers simply because he thought they did a good job.
The high court threw out the enhanced attorney fees for lawyers who sued to force dramatic changes in Georgia's foster care system.
U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob awarded them $10.5 million in attorney fees, a $4.5 million enhancement on top of a $6 million award. Shoob said he increased the award because of the exceptional results that children's advocates achieved. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn his decision.
But Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion for the court, said judges can increase attorney fees, but this judge did not give adequate justification for such a large increase. "The judge's discretion is not unlimited," Alito said. "It is essential that the judge provide a reasonably specific explanation for all aspects of a fee determination, including any award of an enhancement."
Without an explanation, Alito said, "widely disparate awards may be made, and awards may be influenced (or at least, may appear to be influenced) by a judge's subjective opinion regarding particular attorneys or the importance of the case."
Alito was joined in the opinion by the court's conservatives: Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.
The court's liberals, Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, agreed with Alito that judges can increase attorney fees, but rejected the idea that the high court should have gotten involved with the judge's decision in the Georgia case.
Breyer said the court was asked to decide only if a judge can increase attorney fees, and anything else "lies beyond the narrow question that we agreed to consider."
The Supreme Court is too far removed from the case to determine whether the trial judge made the right decision, Breyer said. "But even were I to engage in that inquiry, I would hold that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in awarding an enhancement."
The class-action lawsuit against Georgia, settled in 2005, prompted the state to reduce worker case loads, improve investigations into abuse and prevent overcrowding in foster homes. Gov. Sonny Perdue, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, authorized hiring 500 additional child welfare workers.
Shoob said the attorneys deserved the award because their lawsuit had beneficial results despite the state's resistance to reform. The state settled the case after fighting it for nearly three years.