California’s attempt to impede gun-rights plaintiffs by heightening the threat they would have to fork over legal fees to the state has backfired.
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez ordered the government of California to pay more than $550,000 to four different law firms representing multiple gun-rights organizations on Monday. The money will be used as restitution after the groups successfully challenged the state’s Second Amendment “fee-shifting” law, which would have made plaintiffs and their lawyers financially responsible for the state’s legal expenses if they challenged a gun law and didn’t win on every single claim–even if they won on most of them.
The Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC), one of the victorious plaintiffs, said the law “was intended from the onset to chill the exercise of constitutional rights by threatening to bankrupt those that sought to protect them.” The group cheered the Court’s decision.
“The irony is not lost on us that now it is the state of California paying our legal bills as a result of their attempted unconstitutional trickery,” Bill Sack, the group’s Director of Legal Operations, said in a press release.
The order puts the final nail in the coffin of California’s attempt to dissuade gun-rights advocates from challenging the state’s strictest-in-the-nation laws. It may also discourage other states from attempting to implement the same policy against gun litigation or even litigation on a host of other hot-button issues.
Judge Benitez struck down the provision in question as unconstitutional and permanently enjoined the law last December. He said the tactic “may be familiar to autocratic and tyrannical governments, but not American government.”
“This Court concludes that the purpose and effect of § 1021.11 is to trench on a citizen’s right of access to the courts and to discourage the peaceful vindication of an enumerated constitutional right,” Benitez wrote in his opinion. “Because the state fee-shifting statute undermines a citizen’s constitutional rights, it is this Court’s role to declare its invalidity and enjoin its threat.”
The measure grew from a highly publicized tit-for-tat battle between elected leaders of California and Texas. Golden State lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1327 after the Supreme Court declined to block a similar Texas abortion law on procedural grounds. Cheered on by Governor Gavin Newsom (D.), lawmakers sought to copy that law by allowing private citizens to sue those making or selling so-called assault weapons or ghost guns in California for up to $10,000 per weapon. It also attempted to mimic the fee-shifting provision in the Texas law it copied.
Due to the furor over Texas’ abortion law, California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.) was forced to recuse himself from defending his state’s copycat measure because he publicly called Texas’ efforts “blatantly unconstitutional.” Governor Newsom’s office stepped in to defend the law before eventually losing in court, which the governor celebrated as a win against Texas.
“I want to thank Judge Benitez,” Newsom said at the time. “We have been saying all along that Texas’ anti-abortion law is outrageous. Judge Benitez just confirmed it is also unconstitutional.”
Attorney General Bonta’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement.