Miller v. EchoHawk

Decision Date25 April 1994
Docket NumberNo. 20398,20398
Citation126 Idaho 47,878 P.2d 746
PartiesJanet MILLER, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Larry ECHOHAWK, Attorney General of the State of Idaho, on behalf of the People of the State of Idaho, Plaintiff-Intervenor-Appellant, v. Pete T. CENARRUSA, Secretary of State of the State of Idaho, Michael D. Crapo, President Pro Tempore of the Idaho State Senate, and Tom Boyd, Speaker of the House of Representatives of the State of Idaho, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtIdaho Supreme Court

Larry EchoHawk, Atty. Gen., Francis P. Walker (argued), Deputy Atty. Gen., Boise, for appellant EchoHawk.

Benito T. Ysursa, Boise, for appellant Cenarrusa.

Harris & Sutton, Boise, for respondent. Jim C. Harris, argued.

TROUT, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

This case involves an award of attorney fees to respondent under the Private Attorney General Doctrine. We affirm.

II. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In 1990, the federal census was taken. The Idaho legislature is obligated to reapportion itself based on the census data. In the spring of 1991, the legislature began working on the reapportionment plan in preparation for the release of the census data. In the fall of 1991, a rough draft of a plan was drawn. According to the Memorandum Decision and Order (Memorandum Decision) issued by the district court, a number of legislators had expressed dissatisfaction with the draft plan and few people believed the proposed plan would be quickly adopted.

On November 25, 1991, Janet Miller ("Miller") filed a lawsuit, as a registered voter, in which she: (1) sought to have the existing reapportionment plan, Plan 14-B, declared unconstitutional (Count I); (2) sought an injunction to prevent the secretary of state from holding an election pursuant to Plan 14-B (Count II); and (3) requested that the court allow the legislature to attempt to enact a constitutionally valid reapportionment plan but set a date by which the court would adopt its own plan if the legislature had not reapportioned itself (Count IV). Miller's complaint alleged that the legislature had in the past been unable to adopt a valid reapportionment plan; that the Idaho Code required candidates seeking election to the Idaho legislature to file by a date certain, which was within 118 days from the date of her complaint; and that as a result of no reapportionment plan being enacted, citizens were confused regarding their ability to participate in the election.

On January 2, 1992, the Idaho attorney general filed a notice of appearance and a motion for enlargement of time for defendants Pete Cenarrusa, secretary of state, and Michael Crapo and Tom Boyd, the leaders of the legislature. The district court granted this motion and gave the defendants until February 5, 1992, to answer. On January 8, 1992, Miller filed a summary judgment motion on the first two counts of her complaint.

On January 24, 1992, the attorney general, on behalf of the defendants, answered Miller's complaint. In its answer, the defendants argued that the legislature should have until January 31, 1992, to complete a reapportionment plan and if it failed to do so, the defendants agreed that the court should take over the reapportionment process. On the same day, the attorney general's office filed a complaint in intervention asking the court to adopt a judicially imposed reapportionment plan. On February 3, 1992, the attorney general filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the people of the state of Idaho. By January 31, 1992, the date of the self-imposed deadline, no reapportionment plan had been passed by the legislature. The district court assumed jurisdiction to reapportion the legislature and set March 2, 1992 as the date to begin hearings on proposed plans.

On February 10, 1992, the court granted partial summary judgment for Miller, holding that Plan 14-B was unconstitutional and that the secretary of state was permanently enjoined from conducting any election under Plan 14-B. The court also granted the attorney general's motion to intervene.

On February 28, 1992, the legislature passed House Bill No. 760 which reapportioned the legislative districts, which bill was signed by the governor on March 3, 1992. As a consequence, the court vacated the proceedings for court constructed reapportionment set to start March 2, 1992. On September 12, 1992, the court issued its final judgment, which incorporated the partial summary judgment and dismissed the matter without prejudice.

On October 19, 1992, the district court issued its memorandum decision holding that Miller was entitled to recover attorney fees pursuant to the Private Attorney General Doctrine. The attorney general filed a motion to reconsider which the court denied orally on December 12, 1992. The attorney general has appealed. 1

III. THE DISTRICT COURT DID NOT ABUSE ITS DISCRETION IN AWARDING ATTORNEY FEES PURSUANT TO THE PRIVATE ATTORNEY GENERAL DOCTRINE

In Hellar v. Cenarrusa, 106 Idaho 571, 682 P.2d 524 (1984), another case challenging a proposed reapportionment scheme, this Court held that the trial court has discretion to award attorney fees to the prevailing party under the Private Attorney General Doctrine. Id. at 578, 682 P.2d at 531. In so holding, the Court adopted a three-factor test to determine the right to an award of attorney fees under the Private Attorney General Doctrine. The three factors to be considered are: (1) the strength or societal importance of the public policy [v]indicated by the litigation; (2) the necessity for private enforcement and the magnitude of the resultant burden on the plaintiff; and (3) the number of people standing to benefit from the decision. Id. at 577-78, 682 P.2d at 530-31.

In the instant case, the district court specifically found that the three requirements of Hellar had been met and awarded Miller attorney fees. The court stated:

[The private attorney general doctrine] requires that there be an important public policy indicated by the litigation; that there be necessity of private enforcement and there be a large number of people standing to benefit from the litigation. The reapportionment of the electorate and the legislature's inability to perform its duties meet at least 2 of the criteria. The Attorney General makes an unsupported contention that it would have stepped in to require the legislature fulfill its duties; the Court believes that a private lawsuit was required.

An award of attorney fees under the Private Attorney General Doctrine will be reversed only on a showing of an abuse of discretion by the trial court. Fox v. Board of County Commr's, Boundary County, 121 Idaho 684, 685, 827 P.2d 697, 698 (1992). Factual findings that are the basis for an exercise of discretion such as the award of fees are subject to a substantial and competent evidence standard of review. This is consistent with the clearly erroneous standard of I.R.C.P. 52(a). A finding of fact is not clearly erroneous if it is supported by substantial and competent evidence. See Mulch v. Mulch, 125 Idaho 93, 867 P.2d 967 (1994). This Court has previously indicated that the determination that the three-part test of Hellar has been met involves a factual determination by the trial court. Hellar, 106 Idaho at 577, 682 P.2d at 530; County of Ada v. Red Steer Drive-Ins of Nevada, Inc., 101 Idaho 94, 101, 609 P.2d 161, 168 (1980).

Thus, a review of the district court's exercise of discretion in awarding fees in this case turns on the question of whether the district court's factual determination that the three considerations of Hellar were met is clearly erroneous. There is no claim made by appellants that the first and third parts of the Hellar test have not been met. Nor is there a viable argument made that Miller did not meet the "burden on the plaintiff" aspect of the second part of the Hellar test. The only real issue is the district court's determination that a private lawsuit was necessary. Appellants argue that a private lawsuit was not needed because the attorney general was involved and would have sought judicial assistance if the legislature had failed to reapportion itself.

We cannot conclude that the district court's determination that a private lawsuit was needed was clearly erroneous. There is in the record substantial and competent evidence to support this determination. While the district court noted that the attorney general had made an unsupported contention that it would have stepped in and made the legislature fulfill its duties, the undisputed facts before the court when it made its fee award determination were that the defendants' self-imposed deadline of January 31, 1992, for reapportioning itself was in direct response to Miller's suit and that even that self-imposed deadline...

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