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(Reuters) – Condemn legal fees. This is the message of elite law firms willing to offer pro bono assistance to defendants under the new Texas abortion law, even if that means lawyers could be caught by the legal fees of their opponents.
“We are committed to the effort, despite the financial risk,” said Shannon Selden, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, one of several companies such as Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Susman Godfrey, who say they are ready. to fight.
Working in their favor, Selden and his colleagues, as external advisors to the Center for Reproductive Rights, have been “deeply involved in the planning and preparation of the defense of lawsuits filed under the statute,” he told me. to say. A recent conference call with attorneys from Texas and elsewhere who are willing to join the pro bono effort drew more than 100 participants, Selden said, adding, “This law will not go untested.”
These attorneys are determined that abortion providers will have high-quality legal representation, even if those representing them may be jointly and severally liable for the other party’s fees.
Known as SB8, the law prohibits abortions in Texas after fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy, and its rate change provision is extraordinarily rare if not unprecedented.
The law depends on private citizens for enforcement, rewarding them with at least $ 10,000 plus legal fees for successfully filing a civil lawsuit against anyone who provides an abortion in violation of the act or who “helps and incites.” this abortion. These bounty hunters do not face any penalty for a failed lawsuit.
But for those accused of abortion providers, it’s a very different scheme.
If they win, they receive no compensation. If they lose, even if it’s just a minor and minor claim, they or their attorneys are within the reach of their opponents ’attorneys’ fees and costs.
“The law is designed to deter lawyers from entering,” said Morrison & Foerster partner J. Alexander Lawrence, who represents the plaintiffs, including Whole Woman’s Health pro bono, in challenging the statute in court. federal. On September 1, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block the entry into force of the law.
In fact, the rate change provision “may deter many people from doing so,” Lawrence added.
Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes, the author of the bill, told me earlier this month that the law was “a very elegant use of the judicial system.” You did not immediately respond to the request for comments for this column. A spokeswoman for SB8 advocate Texas Right to Life did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For me, one of the best things about Big Law and the pro bono is that companies have the resources and deep pockets to fight for what they believe is right.
It’s not that companies are indifferent about the potential cost of advocating for abortion providers. “All companies take the exposure that threatens SB8 seriously,” Selden said. “The risk is unknown.” In addition, he said, “We expect the other side to use the rate change provision to raise rates” as a tactic.
Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, told my Reuters colleague David Thomas that granting a fee for an abortion rights case can easily reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, as the case may be. be litigated for years and go through various appeal reviews.
But for Debevoise, it doesn’t seem deterrent. “We’re lucky to be a great law firm with success,” Selden said. According to The American Lawyer, Debevoise had gross revenue of $ 1.222 billion last year and capital partner profits of $ 4.55 million. “I am proud that the company supports and strongly believes that it is important to claim the rule of law and basic reproductive rights.”
Similarly, Paul Weiss is willing to risk receiving the opposing attorney’s fees to fight pro bono against what President Brad Karp in an email described as “the disgusting state of Texas.”
Partner Alexia Korberg is working on the subject of the firm. In an interview, Korberg said, “It’s just what we would consider the cost of representation.”
Even if Paul Weiss lost and was ordered to pay the fees of opposing lawyers, Korberg added: “We would absolutely argue. The tax system is probably unconstitutional separately and separate ”from the rest of the law.
Susman Godfrey, the plaintiffs’ attorney in Texas, has mobilized from the beginning to oppose the law.
Managing partner Neal Manne told me that the firm agreed to work pro bono on the challenges at SB8, including defending the people sued by the “bounty hunters,” even before the proposal was signed into law. “.
In an email, Manne wrote that “many of our lawyers have offered to participate. The law is clearly unconstitutional in both the United States and Texas constitutions.
He added: “The details of what we are doing are, for now, still confidential.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate that a challenge may be posed.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday asked U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin to issue an emergency order that required the law. The judge scheduled a hearing on the motion for Oct. 1.
If the DOJ manages to win a temporary restraining order, it is likely that the call for pro bono weapons will not be necessary, at least for now.
But if not? The law “deprives patients of access to complete reproductive health care. This is an unsustainable position to put healthcare providers in, “Selden said.” I don’t know how long it can last. “
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