Jun 23, 2023 - News

Legal costs in Texas book ban fight continue to rise

Illustration of Supreme Court columns, with one replaced with a stack of quarters.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The cost of protecting a book ban continues to tick up in rural Llano County, northwest of Austin, per records obtained by Axios.

Catch up quick: A group of residents in Llano County sued county officials in April 2022 over what the residents described in legal briefs as a violation of First Amendment rights after the officials removed books from libraries.

Between the lines: Many of the books targeted were written by Latino or Black authors or have LGBTQ+ themes.

  • The 15-odd books taken out of circulation — and since returned by an Austin judge's order — ranged from "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent" by Isabel Wilkerson to "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice Sendak.
  • A county commissioner also had ordered the head librarian to get rid of any copies of the coming-of-age novel "Lawn Boy" and the graphic novel-style memoir "Gender Queer" — available at the time to readers through the online book-borrowing service the county was using.

Flashback: The purging of books was sparked by conservative activists in November 2021 warning county commissioners of "pornographic filth" in the libraries, per emails obtained by Axios.

  • By the end of 2021, the all-Republican county commissioner's court voted to suspend the library's online book-borrowing system — thus cutting off access to titles that might not be physically on Llano library shelves — and ordered the libraries closed for three days to review the book holdings.
  • Plus, county commissioners appointed some of the activists to the county library advisory board.

State of play: County officials aiming to overturn an Austin judge's order in March that Llano County officials return to public library shelves the books that they had removed defended the ban in a hearing before a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel this month.

  • One of the judges said of the books "Gender Queer" and "Lawn Boy," "if they don't meet the definition of pornography, I don't know what does."
  • Publishers and library associations had submitted briefs supporting the claims of the residents suing the county.

By the numbers: The county has now paid attorney Jonathan Mitchell $184,240.

  • Mitchell, who did not reply to an Axios interview request, conceived of the 2021 Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks — and empowers private citizens to bring lawsuits against those who violate it.
  • The plaintiffs are represented pro bono by attorneys from Wittliff Cutter in Austin and a San Francisco firm.

Details: Mitchell's rate is $450 per hour, and the total fees paid to his firm include airline, hotel, meal and taxi expenses, per the documents obtained by Axios through a public information request.

Between the lines: A year ago, county commissioners budgeted $150,000 in legal fees for the library fight.

  • Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham, the county's chief elected official, did not return an interview request — nor did the county attorney or county treasurer.
  • Cunningham previously told Axios that Llano County "is committed to continuing to provide excellent public library services consistent with community needs and standards."

What we're watching: If the Llano County case makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.


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