In March 2014, a U.S. District Court ordered Columbia County, Oregon to pay $763,803.45 in attorney’s fees and $38,373.01 in costs in a lawsuit raising claims of illegal censorship at the Columbia County Jail.
Prison Legal News had filed suit against Columbia County and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson in January 2012 after jail employees rejected PLN’s monthly publication and letters mailed to prisoners at the facility. Further, the jail refused to provide notice or an opportunity to appeal the censorship of PLN’s correspondence. [See: PLN, March 2013, p.50].
The Columbia County Jail rejected PLN’s publication and letters pursuant to a policy that only allowed prisoners to send and receive mail in the form of postcards. Further, the jail did not allow magazines. In April 2013, following a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for PLN and prohibited enforcement of the policy – the first time that a jail’s postcard-only policy has been struck down as unconstitutional following a trial on the merits. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.42].
During the litigation, the county admitted “that inmates have a First Amendment right to receive magazines and inmates and their correspondents have a Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.” However, the jail defended its postcard-only policy and claimed there was no official policy banning magazines at the facility.
Following the trial, the district court found that the defendants’ purported reasons for adopting the postcard-only policy – preventing the introduction of contraband and saving time during mail inspection – were not supported by the evidence. Columbia County subsequently agreed to pay $15,000 to resolve PLN’s claim for monetary damages.
In its March 24, 2014 order awarding $802,176.46 in attorney’s fees and costs to PLN, the district court rejected the county’s arguments and objections to the award.
Jesse Wing, lead counsel for PLN, praised the court for recognizing that the case had advanced the public interest and the rights of many other people. “In his ruling today, Judge Michael H. Simon remarked that, ‘This action brought specific injunctive relief not only to PLN but also to all inmates at the Jail and their family and friends and others who wish to correspond with them...,’” Wing noted.
“The court’s award of over $802,000 in attorney’s fees and expenses in this case represents the cost of failing to comply with the Constitution of the United States,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “When county officials willingly violate the Constitution and refuse to remedy those violations, instead choosing to engage in protracted litigation, ultimately there is a greater cost to the taxpayers.”
Columbia County has appealed the district court’s judgment and injunction prohibiting enforcement of the jail’s postcard-only policy, and the appeal remains pending before the Ninth Circuit.
PLN was ably represented by Jesse Wing and Katie Chamberlain with the Seattle law firm of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless; by the late Marc D. Blackman with the Portland law firm of Ransom Blackman, LLP, who passed away on January 1, 2014; and by Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber. See: Prison Legal News v. Columbia County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:12-cv-00071-SI.
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