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Supreme Court backs abortion foes on fees

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday that a South Carolina sheriff’s office can be held liable for attorneys’ fees for stopping abortion protesters in South Carolina who wanted to hold up signs showing aborted fetuses.

Justices on Monday reversed a decision saying the Greenwood County sheriff’s office was not required to pay attorneys’ fees in a lawsuit brought by Steven Lefemine and Columbia Christians for Life.

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The group was told by officers they couldn’t protest with their signs in November 2005. A federal judge agreed that the sheriff was wrong, but did not award damages or lawyer’s fees. The justices threw out that decision without hearing arguments, saying the legal decision that officers could not stop the protesters ‘‘supported the award of attorneys’ fees.’’ The case now goes back to the lower courts.

A law passed by Congress in 1976 allows civil rights lawyers who sue and win cases involving constitutional rights to claim “reasonable attorney’s fees.” The law was intended to support civil rights groups, which were filing suits at that time over issues such as school desegregation.

In Monday’s ruling, the justices concluded that the law applies equally to antiabortion protesters who clash with police or city officials.

Columbia Christians for Life protesters stood at a busy intersection in Greenwood County and held up photos they said showed the “horrors of abortion.” Several motorists called the police to complain about the signs.

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