PHOENIX (AP) – It was a troubling sight for those worried about government spending: The judge presiding over Sheriff Joe Arpaio's racial-profiling case summoned lawyers to the bench, and so many attorneys came forward that they barely fit and had to crane their necks to hear the conversation.
Most were making a minimum of $150 per hour — and taxpayers are footing the bulk of the bill.
The gaggle underscored that the tangled and long-running case against Arpaio has become a boon for lawyers and a huge financial liability to taxpayers. Taxpayers have shelled out $8.2 million for outside attorneys in the nearly 8-year-old case, representing a sizable portion of the $50 million that Maricopa County is projected to pay in the lawsuit by next summer.
The attorneys are paid $150 to $275 per hour, though one firm gets $310 an hour.
A steady stream of lawyers cycled in and out earlier in the case. But their numbers began to swell this year following an appeals court ruling and a judge's decision to launch a contempt-of-court case against the sheriff for his defiance of an order to stop conducting his immigration patrols.
The roster of lawyers includes civil and criminal attorneys for Arpaio. The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the profiling case against Arpaio, typically has three lawyers in the courtroom.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which is responsible for defending county employees and agencies in lawsuits, had to bring in outside lawyers after an appeals court ruled the county – not Arpaio's office – was the proper target for the lawsuit. Four Arpaio aides each have lawyers. And a former Arpaio lawyer involved in the case is even represented by an attorney.
Sketch artist Maggie Keanne said she has never seen so many attorneys tied up in private conversations at the bench in her more than 30 years of working in courtrooms.
"It seemed to me that half the room got up and went to the judge," she said.
The man who runs the sheriff's legal defense fund blamed the high-priced legal tab on the ACLU, the driving force behind the case. "Taxpayers are paying their legal bills," Chad Willems told The Associated Press in late May. Arpaio's office didn't respond to requests for comment.
Federal law lets the winners of civil rights cases seek reimbursement for legal costs. Otherwise, civil rights advocates say the costs of bringing such lawsuits would dissuade people from filing cases.
Cecillia Wang, an ACLU attorney leading the case, said Arpaio's office brought the case on itself by violating Latinos' constitutional rights, fighting the lawsuit at every turn and often resisting the judge's attempts to overhaul the agency.
"There was an easy way to avoid this -- that was not to violate people's rights in the first place," Wang said.
The $8.2 million bill for lawyers does not represent all legal costs covered by taxpayers. That tally includes only the money paid to outside lawyers. Attorneys employed by County Attorney Bill Montgomery who have been brought into the case are an additional hit to taxpayers, but Montgomery's office didn't have an estimate on those costs.
One bill taxpayers do not have to pay is that of the criminal defense lawyers helping Arpaio and his aides during the contempt proceedings. Arpaio must pay those costs out of pocket, but he has reached out to supporters for donations. In a fundraising plea several months ago, the sheriff said: "I do not have the personal wealth or the wherewithal to keep up with the costly demands of paying for attorneys to defend me."
Arpaio earns $100,000 as sheriff and owns more than $2 million in commercial real estate in metro Phoenix.