Schoolyard bully: Davis Wright Tremain shaking down Seattle Public Schools for a whole lot of lunch money

June 18, 2009 | Aaron Keating

A local law firm already forced Seattle Public Schools to shelve the racial tie-breaker. Now it’s making the district pay the legal bill.

From Real Change News:

Pro bono is a term used by lawyers for legal work they perform without reimbursement or compensation. Legal firms — especially the large ones that charge several hundreds of dollars per hour — are usually eager to promote their pro bono work as community service.

Davis Wright Tremaine is one of Seattle’s premier law firms, and a sizeable portion of their website is dedicated to their pro bono work. But now they’re looking to get paid for it — and at taxpayer expense to boot!

This law firm, where former Governor Gary Locke was a partner before becoming our nation’s Secretary of Commerce, is strong-arming the Seattle School District in an attempt to be reimbursed for pro bono expenses from a suit that effectively allows re-segregation of public schools around the country.

It all started nine years ago when a small group of parents from Magnolia were unhappy their children did not get into the over-subscribed Ballard High School. They sued, and not over sibling preference, or proximity, which they could have done, but over the racial integration tie-breaker.

That action attracted support from the turn-back-the-clock crowd of people who oppose integration. Harry Korrell, a lead counsel for Lawyers for Bush-Cheney 2004 and a lead attorney representing the Washington State Republican Party and Dino Rossi in their attempt to overturn the 2004 gubernatorial election, agreed to donate pro bono legal work. At the time, Korrell was (and continues to be listed as) an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine, so they took on the effort as a pro bono case.

Over the better part of the next decade, Ballard High School went through years of upheaval. It lost a principal in protest of a lower court order throwing out the racial integration tie-breaker. And slowly but surely it became less and less diverse. Korrell and Davis Wright Tremaine persevered nonetheless. The case wound through the courts until it finally came before the United States Supreme Court, which handed down a 5-4 decision in favor of the parents — in effect, in favor of re-segregation.

The icing on the cake is this: Davis Wright Tremaine figured out a way to force the Seattle School District to pay for their “pro bono” work on the case.

Federal law gives plaintiffs the right to collect fees from the losing party – in this case, the Seattle School District. Davis Wright Tremaine originally wanted $1.8 million. Mind you, this is not for the kids of the people who brought the suit. This is for the lawyers in their downtown high-rise, and the fact that it’s really no longer pro bono work hasn’t stopped the firm from highlighting it as such on its website.

Harry Korrell and Davis Wright Tremaine are now finishing up negotiations with the Seattle Public Schools. They are about to hand the School District an $800,000 bill. They will give $150,000 to the Alliance for Education to plow this back into Seattle schools. Certainly Davis Wright Tremaine will use that as a fig leaf to say, “look, we are giving back to the public schools.” But they’ll also make off with $650,000 free and clear. That could pay a year’s education of almost 100 schoolchildren.

Davis Wright Tremaine has the Seattle School District in a legal corner, and is effectively shaking down our students, parents and taxpayers for a whole lot of lunch money. The firm should instead put down its legal billy club, accept its own claims about the work being pro bono, and swallow the costs of validating segregation. They’ve done enough damage already.

I wonder what our Commerce Secretary would advise.

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Posted in Education

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