California Third Party ballot access activists build legal muscle for the long haul


KPFA Evening News, 10.28.2012

Covington and Burling, an international, Washington D.C.-based law firm, has joined Gautam Dutta as pro bono co-counsel to Third Party ballot access activists Richard Winger, Jeff Mackler, Rodney Martin, Jennifer Wozniak, Mona Field, and Stephen Chessin.  San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow ordered the six activists to pay $250,000 in attorneys fees to groups funded by Charlie Munger, Jr., son of billionaire Berkshire Hathaway executive Charlie Munger. Gautam Dutta said that the activists will now appeal the decision, and that Covington and Burling's agreement to join their legal team makes it clear that they will be able to fight for the long haul.



KPFA Evening News Anchor Anthony Fest: Supporters packed a San Francisco Superior Courtroom and flowed over into the hallway earlier this week for a hearing on whether or not Third Green Party activists Akio Tanaka, left, and Barry Hermanson, center, and Justice Party activist Romi Kanani, were among those who came to San Francisco Superior Court on 10.24.2012, to support ballot access activists facing an order to pay $250,000 in attorney fees for challenging ballot access restrictions. Party activists who challenged State ballot access restrictions will have to pay a quarter of a million dollars in attorneys’ fees after losing their case.  Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow later ruled that they must pay, but their attorney Gautam Dutta said they will appeal. KPFA’s Ann Garrison spoke today to Dutta, who said that the big Washington D.C. based law firm Covington and Burling has agreed to join him as pro bono co-counsel on the case, thereby helping to level the balance of power. Here's Ann Garrison. 

KPFA/Ann Garrison: Gauttam Dutta, attorney for the Third Party ballot activists who challenged state legislation restricting ballot access, said that Covington and Burling’s commitment raised the stakes in his clients’ case.

Gautam Dutta: Well, it makes it easier to continue. And, it certainly raises the stakes because now they know we can fight for the long haul.

KPFA: Dutta also said that Covington and Burling's decision highlights the significance of the case.

Gautam Dutta: It sends a very strong message that what happens in this case would truly have a national impact, and, for that reason, prominent players in the legal community are stepping forward to help us, because if this ruling were allowed to stand, it would intimidate ordinary people and grassroots groups from challenging unjust laws, lest they be forced to pay unjust legal fees.

KPFA: Charlie Munger Jr., son of billionaire Berkshire Hathaway executive Charlie Munger, funded groups that hired attorneys to “intervene” in the case that Dutta brought on behalf of his clients without pay. Those groups are now demanding that Dutta's clients pay $250,000 in attorney’s fees, and Dutta said that his clients would be devastated.

Gautam Dutta: Oh, it would be devastating. Simple as that. Do you have $250,000 hanging around in your back pocket?  I don't know how many people do, except perhaps for the billionaire who is funding the groups that are seeking the fees from my clients.

KPFA: The ballot access activists’ case began when they sued the California Secretary of State regarding legislation passed to strengthen the Top Two Primary Law created by Proposition 14, without the same approval by the voters. Dutta said, however, but that it’s now a case about the right of ordinary citizens to seek justice in U.S. courts.

Gautam Dutta: While this case was originally about the Top Two Primary, it's now become a test of whether ordinary citizens can seek justice in the courts.

KPFA: Dutta said that he himself is a registered Democrat, but he took the Third Party ballot activists’ case to help defend and expand voting rights essential to real democracy. He is also the attorney on a lawsuit challenging the Top Two Primary law, which is now in a federal appeals court.

For Pacifica, KPFA Radio, I’m Ann Garrison.

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