Coalition wants $300K in legal fees dropped; attorney apologizes to Missouri judge

Judge Signing Papers on Table With Gavel

(The Center Square) – An atypical coalition wants a reversal of a court ruling requiring two employees of the Springfield Public Schools to pay the district’s $300,000 in legal expenses from a dismissed lawsuit they filed.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri joined the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, along with Alliance Defending Freedom, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the Defense of Freedom Institute for Policy Studies and Reason Foundation, filed a brief requesting the change with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Employees Brooke Henderson and Jennifer Lumley filed the lawsuit through the Southeastern Legal Foundation. They claimed a mandatory training requiring them to commit to become “anti-racist” violated their First Amendment rights.

In January, U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool ruled in favor of the school district and granted its request the employees pay legal expenses of $312,869.50 incurred by the district. Harpool called the lawsuit a “frivolous political disagreement.”

The coalition argues the ruling to pay the legal fees goes too far.

“Uncritically awarding government officials hundreds of thousands of dollars defeats the purpose of our fundamental civil rights statutes, prevents the vindication of vital constitutional protections, and stagnates the law,” the brief states.

Gillian Ruddy Wilcox, deputy director for litigation for the ACLU of Missouri, said civil rights litigants need protection.

“While the organizations filing this amicus brief may disagree on the meaning of the constitution and even on the merits of the suit against Springfield Public Schools, we agree that access to the courts is necessary to challenge the government when it restricts the rights of the people it was intended to serve,” Wilcox said in a statement. “The financial penalty imposed by the decision on appeal will close the courthouse door to anyone pushing to expand individual liberty.”

Matthew Hofmann, Alliance Defending Freedom’s legal counsel, said the court should protect the ability of citizens to pursue justice.

“Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as the diverse coalition of other legal advocacy groups we joined in filing this friend-of-the-court brief, regularly help or advocate for the ability of average American citizens to challenge government officials who have infringed on their constitutionally protected rights,” Hofmann said in a statement. “When government officials violate someone’s First Amendment freedoms, they should be held accountable for their actions and pay the necessary attorney’s fees. We urge the court to protect every American’s right to pursue legal action to vindicate their constitutionally protected freedoms.”

In a related development, Kimberly Hermann of the Southeastern Legal Foundation and lawyer for the employees, sent a written apology to Harpool for comments she made about him on Fox News and Newsmax after the ruling. Harpool ordered her to answer why she shouldn’t be sanctioned for her comments.

“At the time I made the statements identified in the show cause order, it was not my intention to address, let alone impugn, the integrity or the qualifications of the court,” Hermann wrote in a declaration filed on May 4. “On May 1, 2023, I mailed a letter of apology to Judge Harpool.”

Joe Mueller
Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.

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