A Baton Rouge federal judge who previously found that state corrections officials manipulated the court-ordered collection of temperature data on Louisiana’s death row has ordered the state to pay nearly $50,000 in fees and costs incurred by attorneys for several death-row inmates who challenged their steaming hot living conditions.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson determined in late 2013 that state officials were guilty of manipulation when they installed awnings and soaker hoses on death row, while the litigation was ongoing, that corrupted temperature data they were to preserve.
The inmates’ attorneys sought more than $66,500 in fees and $5,000 in costs associated with the evidentiary and discovery violations found by Jackson, but lawyers representing state corrections officials balked at the legal fee figure and called it unreasonable and excessive.
Jackson, in a recent ruling and order, reduced the requested attorneys’ fees to just over $44,000 and let the requested costs stand at $5,025.
The judge also took the opportunity to, once again, scold state corrections officials, saying it is “meritless and baffling” for them to complain about the inmates’ attorneys’ legal work on the matter.
Jackson said it was attorneys for corrections officials who “deliberately dodged” requests for information on the cost of installing air conditioning, avoided turning over information about the installation of soaker hoses, and created the “false impression” that a federal magistrate judge had approved and encouraged remedial measures such as awnings and soaker hoses.
“Defendants cannot, like Pontius Pilate, simply wash their hands of it all,” he wrote.
Mercedes Montagnes, one of the death-row inmate’s attorneys, said Thursday the defense team had no comment on the judge’s ruling and order.
Grant Guillot, one of the state’s attorneys, also declined comment. The state has no appeal in the works of Jackson’s ruling and order.
Jackson determined it is reasonable for Montagnes and Elizabeth Compa to be paid at their proposed hourly rates of $225 and $200, respectively. The judge, however, said the rates proposed by four of the other inmates’ attorneys are not reasonable. He lowered Steven Scheckman’s rate from $350 to $300; Nilay Vora’s from $350 to $225; Jessica Kornberg’s from $310 to $235; and Michael Kamin’s from $550 to $300.
Vora, Kornberg and Kamin are lawyers in Los Angeles and requested to be compensated based on that area’s market rate for attorneys of comparable skill and experience.
Jackson noted that the Los Angeles-based Central District of California and the Baton Rouge-based Middle District of Louisiana are neither of similar size, nor do they possess similar legal markets.
“Therefore, the Los Angeles market is inappropriate for purposes of this Court’s inquiry,” he said.
The fees and costs represent sanctions the judge imposed for what he described in December 2013 as the state’s “brazen attempt” to hide the truth about temperatures on death row. He ruled then that the hot conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, previously testified in Jackson’s courtroom that corrections officials “messed up” by installing awnings and soaker hoses while temperature data was being collected in summer 2013 but said they did not intend to disobey the judge’s order to preserve evidence in the case.
Jackson, in his December 2013 order, did not require the state to air-condition death row but said heat indexes there should not top 88 degrees Fahrenheit from April through October.
The state, which complained to a New Orleans federal appeals court that the judge’s order effectively required it to provide air conditioning, submitted a court-ordered remediation plan that called for air conditioning, ice and cool showers for death-row inmates.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this summer ordered Jackson to consider other remedies, short of air conditioning, to offer relief to the three ailing condemned killers — Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee — who contend their lives are jeopardized by the extreme heat.
The appellate court agreed with Jackson that those inmates’ constitutional rights are being violated and that something must be done to correct the violation.
The case is back in Jackson’s court.