State Ordered to Pay Third Party Plaintiffs $619,000 in Legal Costs After Limiting Ballot Access

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol ordered the state of South Dakota Tuesday to pay $612,045 in legal fees, and travel expenses of $7,539 for the plaintiffs who won a ballot access trial against the state in February. Judge Piersol ruled in late February that the state signatures requirements for minor parties to access the ballot were onerous, and that the late-winter filing deadline was too early.

In March the state complied with the February court order by repealing the ballot access requirements which the court found to impose a “severe burden” on third parties and their members.

It was a big win for the plaintiffs in the case, the Libertarian Party of South Dakota (which is fielding candidates for governor and the U.S. House this year), the Constitution Party of South Dakota, and various party officials, and for future South Dakota candidates who want to take the road less traveled to public office outside of the two party system, without shouldering burdensome and biased state requirements to get their name in front of voters on election day.

But now, seven months after their late February victory in the U.S. District Courthouse in Sioux Falls, Judge Piersol’s latest ruling against the state is a $619,000 cherry on top of a sweet ballot access victory sundae for the plaintiffs in the case. To win their case, the third parties had to fight through nearly three years of litigation, and hire the help of four lawyers from outside the state, including two attorneys from the ACLU, who put in hundreds of hours.

That was the point of contention for the defendants. The state attorneys representing Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and Attorney General Marty Jackley argued the state should not have to pay out-of-state fees for in-state work, but the plaintiffs showed the judge evidence that they had sought out the services of 10 attorneys in South Dakota and been turned down by each, who declined to represent a suit against the state in a complex ballot access case.

Judge Piersol wrote in his 10 page ruling:

“[I]t is too much to expect the plaintiffs, lay people, to find the one attorney in South Dakota who might have taken the case, but then again might not have taken the case, especially considering the time and expense involved in aggressively pursuing the claims.”

On Thursday the ACLU of South Dakota announced that Robins Kaplan, one of the attorneys in the case, would be donating their share of the fees awarded by Judge Piersol to the ACLU.