How much does a big Supreme Court case like gay marriage cost?

People queue to enter the Supreme Court in Washington on March 25, 2013.

The Supreme Court is taking up same-sex marriage this week. Tomorrow and Wednesday it will hear arguments on California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.

It got us wondering about the cost of bringing a case to the Supreme Court. It's not cheap.

The first step is asking the court to consider your claim, which carries a pretty substantial lawyering price-tag. “If you’re just paying hourly, and you are paying at D.C. rates, it would be somewhere from $100,000 to $250,000,” says attorney James Bopp, who has argued many big-deal cases in front of the justices.

And that’s just to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. If the justices agree, which they rarely do, then we’re talking really big numbers. “About the cheapest you can get away with at D.C. rates is $250,000,” Bopp says, “and then it ranges in the millions after that.” 

Those lawyer fees are only the beginning of the money that gets poured into Supreme Court cases. “When you think about the overall process, there are a lot of actors involved,” says Stephen Engel, a politics professor at Bates College. There are the experts who help prepare the case, the salaries of the justices, their clerks, their staff, the opposing lawyers. And there are the costs of filing amicus briefs.

“Each amicus briefs needs to pay for the process of the staff and all of the costs associated with the labor of generating that amicus brief,” Engel says. 

The same-sex marriage cases the court will hear this week are a little different -- when you’re talking money. “I think that most of the law firms who are involved are not charging their full rate,” says Dan Ortiz from the University of Virginia School of Law.

They aren’t writing those big invoices, in part because they believe in the cause. But also, taking part in hot ticket cases, Ortiz says, “makes you a real player in the profession and raises your profile for future cases.”

Future cases that may have much bigger paychecks.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...