Law firms Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and Strumwasser & Woocher LP are on track to be selected as the outside attorneys for the California Citizens Redistricting Commission as the group draws new congressional, legislative, and tax districts for the next 10 years.
The bipartisan commission oversees creation of new district maps that will influence political power in California for a decade and likely spark intense partisan court battles. Commissioners voted Thursday to allow the legal affairs committee to start negotiating terms of the deals, and will make a final decision on hiring the firms the week of April 12.
The vote comes after commissioners, voting rights advocates, and members of the public voiced concerns over the past week about Gibson Dunn’s political and legal conflicts of interest, as well as the firm’s high costs when it worked for the commission during the 2010 redistricting cycle.
The Gibson Dunn legal team includes veteran attorney Ted Boutrous, who worked to defeat California’s gay marriage ban and sought to defend former President Donald Trump’s detractors against defamation claims. Boutros has been a frequent critic of the Trump administration, its Republican supporters, and GOP efforts to revise voting laws.
Strumwasser & Woocher, aided by elections expert David Becker, was selected by the legal affairs committee last week to counsel the commission on Voting Rights Act compliance as it draws new maps. Both firms were chosen to defend the commission in court when the new districts are challenged.
Gibson Dunn’s size and resources were attractive to commissioners, and contributed to the legal affairs committee’s decision to recommend the firm. The nearly 1,400-lawyer firm brings in more than $2 billion in gross revenue per year, according to data compiled by The American Lawyer magazine.
“We need to have the biggest guns on our side, and not on somebody else’s,” Russell Yee, a Republican commissioner and member of the legal affairs committee, said last week.
But Yee and others also questioned Gibson Dunn’s political past—firm partner Ted Olson represented former President George W. Bush in contentious litigation over the 2000 presidential election—as well as its partners’ and associates’ prolific donations to candidates and political action committees.
“I’m a little concerned about, are we setting precedent by doing this?” said Commissioner Jane Andersen, a Republican. Andersen and another commissioner, Republican Derric Taylor, abstained from voting to move forward on hiring the firm.
A conflict-of-interest report posted to the commission’s website denotes over $69,700 in political donations and lobbying contracts that Gibson Dunn’s partners and associates failed to initially disclose to the commission. That includes a $20,000 federal lobbying contract representing Sudanese victims of terrorism, as well as a $11,200 donation to President Joe Biden’s campaign from Boutrous.
The firm donated nearly $1.7 million to candidates in federal political races during the 2020 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The contributions, largely through individual donations, skewed largely in favor of Democrats (74%) over Republicans (26%).
In a March 27 letter, Gibson Dunn partner Kahn Scolnik told commissioners that he didn’t think the commission’s request for information on political contributions applied to donations from the firm’s individual attorneys, and apologized for the confusion it may have created.
Strumwasser & Woocher also failed to disclose over $58,000 in political money to the commission, the bulk coming from a $50,000 contract for a campaign to make health insurance companies justify their rates.
California Voting Rights Act
Commissioners and advocates have also focused on Gibson Dunn’s current involvement in a California Voting Rights Act case.
In Pico Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Santa Monica, Cal., No. S263972, currently before the California Supreme Court, the firm is representing Santa Monica against allegations that the city violated the act in holding at-large elections, a practice challengers say discriminates against Latino voters.
Scolnik told the commission last week that the firm’s involvement in the case would not affect its work as legal counsel, and that a California Supreme Court ruling may not come until after the firm is done representing the commission.
Gibson Dunn served as both the voting rights act and litigation counsel 10 years ago, sharing the litigation role with Morrison & Foerster. In 2012, Gibson Dunn billed the commission nearly $1.1 million for its litigation services, according to commission records, one-and-a-half times what Morrison & Foerster charged.
Those high costs addled the cash-strapped agency, said Cynthia Dai, a former Democratic commissioner who chaired the finance and administration committee during the 2010 redistricting cycle.
“They really billed for everything, and that completeness came at a big cost to California taxpayers,” Dai said in an interview.
Though it’s not certain how much the firms will be paid through the end of the redistricting cycle, the commission has set aside $3.25 million for legal and related services through June 30, 2022, according to the latest budget. The commission also set aside $4.3 million to pay for litigation related to the maps.