Supreme Court in summary opinion says pro-life demonstrator was prevailing party for attorney fee award

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

Today (6 November 2012), in a per curiam opinion issued without calling for briefing or oral arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court in  Lefemine v. Wideman, (Docket No. 12-168, decided 11/5/2012)  (full text, scroll to end of Order List) held that a member of Columbia Christians for Life who obtained a permanent injunction, but no monetary damages was a “prevailing party” and entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees, unless on remand the lower courts find special circumstances that should preclude an award. In a 2005 anti-abortion demonstration at a busy intersection in Greenwood County, South Carolina, police officers threatened to charge picketers with breach of the peace if they did not get rid of signs picturing aborted fetuses. The lower courts permanently enjoined officials from engaging in such content-based restrictions. However, finding qualified immunity, the courts denied the request for nominal damages as well as for attorneys fees. The Supreme Court said:

Because the injunction ordered the defendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefited the plaintiff, we vacate the Fourth Circuit’s decision and remand for further proceedings.

(See prior posting.) SCOTUSblog reports on today’s decision.