October 2, 2014

Profile in Courage: Richard Winger

Ed. Note:  Hear this important story of public interest activist Richard Winger (as told by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times):

Here’s a question about Charles Munger Jr. that’s been buried by coverage of his $35 million in campaign spending to pass an anti-union initiative and torpedo Gov. Jerry Brown‘s tax initiative in next week’s election: Has he been maneuvering to bankrupt a public interest activist who had the temerity to mount a court challenge to one of his previous initiatives?

That’s the picture of the multimillionaire being painted by the activist, Richard Winger, 69, who has run San Francisco-based Ballot Access News since 1985. To say Winger’s efforts to track voter-rights litigation nationwide operate on a shoestring is to insult shoestrings; he says his income in each of the last two years came to $6,000.

Now he’s been hit with a $243,000 bill for legal fees incurred by Munger, Winger’s adversary in his unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn Proposition 14. That’s the Munger-backed 2010 “open primary” initiative that turned the general election into a runoff between the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of their party.

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Experts in public interest law say the fee award, if it stands, will have a chilling effect on public advocates and community activists who use the courts to challenge government decisions and even private business deals. “If citizens who dare to challenge these corporate-funded propositions then have to pay these corporate lawyers, nobody’s going to do it,” Rosenfield observes.

The fee award astonishes even experts who disagree with Winger’s legal position, such as Richard Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine. In his authoritative Election Law Blog thus summer, Hasen called the award “absolutely outrageous,” arguing that such assessments against losing litigants are justified only when an action is frivolous or in bad faith. “This lawsuit was neither,” he wrote.

Read the rest of Richard’s compelling story here.

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