Georgia, Florida split $430,325.19 in court costs for water litigation – to date

By David Pendered

Georgia and Florida have split a bill of $430,325.19 charged by the special master who managed the Supreme Court lawsuit over river flow from Georgia into Florida. This may be the first time court costs associated with the case have emerged. More payments are pending.

apalachicola, mullet

A couple casts for mullet along the banks of Apalachicola Bay, an area that factors into the water dispute between Florida and Georgia. File/Credit: David Pendered

Typically, state officials have referred to, “costs associated with water litigation.”

That was the language in Gov. Nathan Deal’s Jan. 11 executive order. Deal shifted $3.6 million from the governor’s emergency fund to the state’s water litigation account.

In January, Florida lawmakers balked at paying an additional $13 million for “outside counsel” related to the lawsuit. The document goes on to comingle the terms “litigation expenses” and “actual billings,” without noting the court costs.

The fees charged by the special master appear in a docket maintained by the Supreme Court. This docket is outside routine media review because it does not provide access to documents. Without providing access to the contents of filings, the site is less than robust and thus of limited apparent use.

The docket maintained by the special master does provide access to documents. However, a comparative review by SaportaReport.com of the dockets conducted Thursday show that the special master’s docket does not contain all the files that appear on the Supreme Court’s docket.

The bills submitted by the special master are among those documents that don’t appear on the special master’s docket. Nor do the orders granting payment appear on the special master’s docket.

Special Master Ralph Lancaster has filed five motions seeking payment. The official term of art is, “Motion of the Special Master for Allowance of Fees and Disbursements filed by Special Master.”

The court has approved the five motions for fees and disbursements Lancaster has submitted since his first filing, on April 14, 2015, according to the Supreme Court’s docket. The total sum paid to date is $430,325.19.

Ralph Lancaster

Ralph Lancaster

In response to each motion, the court issued an order granting Lancaster’s motions. In each instance, the court cited the period for which payment was issued and the amount of payment. In each instance, the court ruled the amount was, “to be paid equally by the parties.”

Lancaster filed on March 1 a document titled, “Final Motion of the Special Master for Allowance of Fees and Disbursements filed by Special Master.”

This bill is likely is to cover Lancaster’s fees and disbursements for the period from Jan. 1 through Feb. 14. The later is the date Lancaster issued his recommendation to the Supreme Court. Lancaster’s previous motion was for payment due through Dec. 31, 2016.

That said, Lancaster’s work may not be complete. Thus, the final bill may have yet to be filed.

A March 1 filing on the Supreme Court’s docket cites a March 17 conference. This item does not appear on the special master’s docket. Nor, for example, does the docket of the special master reference a Jan. 25 report regarding a conference on Feb. 17. All these items appear on the Supreme Court’s docket. Other items characterized as conference appear on the docket of the Supreme Court but not the special master.

This is the timeline of Supreme Court orders granting payments to the special master:

  • May 18, 2015 – “Motion of the Special Master for Allowance of Fees and Disbursements GRANTED The motion of the Special Master for allowance of fees and disbursements is granted, and the Special Master is awarded a total of $47,635.01 for the period November 19, 2014, through March 31, 2015, to be paid equally by the parties.

    Apalachicola, Lady Louise

    The Lady Louise has sunk at the Scipio Creek Mooring Basin, in Apalachicola, Fl., and her booms that once trolled for seafood now serve as perches for crows and other birds. File/Credit: David Pendered

  • Oct. 13, 2015 – “Motion of the Special Master for Allowance of Fees and Disbursements GRANTED The motion of the Special Master for allowance of fees and disbursements is granted, and the Special Master is awarded a total of $70, 245.52 for the period April 1, 2015, through August 31, 2015, to be paid equally by the parties.
  • March 21, 2016 – “The motion of the Special Master for allowance of fees and disbursements is granted, and the Special Master is awarded a total of $41,564.31 for the period September 1, 2015, through January 31, 2016, to be paid equally by the parties.
  • 17, 2016 – “The motion of the Special Master for allowance of fees and disbursements is granted, and the Special Master is awarded a total of $57,333, for the period February 1, 2016, through August 31, 2016, to be paid equally by the parties.
  • 21 – “The motion of the Special Master for allowance of fees and disbursements is granted, and the Special Master is awarded a total of $213,547.35 for the period September 1, 2016, through December 31, 2016, to be paid equally by the parties.”

The latest entry regarding payments reads:

  • March 1 – “Final Motion of the Special Master for Allowance of Fees and Disbursements filed by Special Master.”
Chattahoochee watershed

Map of the Apalachicola-Chatthoochee-Flint river basin with the Chattahoochee highlighted in dark blue.

When the Supreme Court appointed Lancaster, a lawyer in Maine, to serve as special master of the water litigation, the court instructed that Florida and Georgia would pay the associated costs at proportions to be determined by the court:

  • “The compensation of the Special Master, the allowances to him, the compensation paid to his legal, technical, stenographic, and clerical assistants, the cost of printing his Reports, and all other proper expenses, including travel expenses, shall be charged against and be borne by the parties in such proportion as the Court may hereafter direct.”

Lancaster issued to the Supreme Court on Feb. 14 a report of his recommendation on the resolution of the lawsuit filed by Florida against Georgia.

Justices are expected to consider the report and rule on the case by the end of its term, in June or early July.

Lancaster’s ruling says the court should not rule in Florida’s favor.

The ruling also notes that it’s impossible to extricate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the environmental woes Florida claims to suffer as a result of diminished water flow from Georgia into the Apalachicola River. The corps is not a party to the case, making Lancaster’s language worth noting:

  • “The evidence presented at trial suggests that the Corps’ reservoir operations are a significant, and perhaps the primary, factor influencing the amount of streamflow crossing the state line during times of drought and low flows….”
  • “Unless the Corps’ rules are changed, therefore, increased inflow into the reservoir system will not necessarily pass downstream to Florida during these times.…
  • “Rather, it appears likely that ensuring relief for Florida during these times would require modification of the rules governing the Corps’ reservoir operations and, hence, active participation by the Corps in this proceeding.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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