Edward W. Maher, Commissioner of Income Maintenance, State of Connecticut v. Virginia Gagne et al.
This case presents two issues of statutory construction. First, the Supreme Court has been asked to determine if an award of attorney's fees can be made under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 ("Act") if both statutory and constitutional issues have been raised in a civil rights case. This question is significant because a federal court will decide a case, if possible, on available statutory grounds and avoid constitutional grounds. If a decision on statutory grounds will not support an award under the Act, litigants will be encouraged to forego available statutory grounds and proceed strictly on constitutional claims. This will force federal courts to engage in unnecessary constitutional adjudication. The second question is whether the Act permits an award of attorney's fees in a civil rights case that has been settled by a consent decree rather than by adjudication on the merits. A restrictive interpretation of the Act would result in cases being litigated, rather than settled, so that an award of attorney's fees may be obtained. If this should occur, it arguably would frustrate federal judicial policy favoring voluntary settlement and create conflicts of interest between plaintiffs and their attorneys.