PHILADELPHIA - Defending state lawmakers, judges and Gov. Ed Rendell in lawsuits spawned by last year's short-lived, unpopular legislative pay raise has cost taxpayers more than $1 million so far, a newspaper reported.
The amount represents the total cost for outside lawyers working on five lawsuits stemming from the pay raise, one of which was thrown out by a federal judge last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Monday.
State officials said they were obligated to defend themselves, even though they consider the lawsuits frivolous since the law raising the salaries of lawmakers, judges and executive-branch officials was repealed in November.
"Do I like hiring lawyers to defend these kinds of suits? No, I hate to do this," said House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson. "I understand why people think it is a waste of money, but if we think we are right about the process, we have to defend it."
Six staff lawyers on the state payroll have been involved in the cases, plus at least 16 private lawyers from five law firms, including one who charges $625 an hour, the newspaper reported.
"They have robbed the bank," said Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist who filed three of the lawsuits, "and then used the people's money to defend themselves."
Stilp estimated that he spent $10,000 of his money on the lawsuits, mostly for copying fees and court costs.
The pay-raise law was passed without public notice or debate in the early-morning hours of July 7 before lawmakers recesses for the summer. The ensuing furor over the raises led to the repeal and has been widely cited as the reason for the ouster of a Supreme Court justice in the November election and of 17 sitting lawmakers - mostly Republicans - in last month's primary.
Three of the five lawsuits directly challenged the pay raise. The other legal challenges sought a state audit of legislative spending and asked the court to declare unconstitutional certain legislative benefits such as leased cars and per diems.
U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane on June 12 threw out a federal lawsuit that challenged the manner in which the pay-raise law was passed, saying the ispute belongs to the "political and electoral process." The other suits were filed in state courts.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, questioned why the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government did not rely solely on their own staff lawyers to defend them.
Stephen MacNett, chief counsel to Senate Republicans, said the staff attorneys "are not litigators" and added that outside lawyers are constitutional-law experts. He said most of the legal costs were incurred after the pay-raise repeal as the lawsuits continued.
The repeal "should have been the end of it," MacNett said, but the plaintiffs "are attempting to make a point - an expensive point."
"And unfortunately, it's not done yet," he said.