A verdict might be months away in the Dover intelligent design trial, but the victorious parties will have more to celebrate -- and the defeated could have more to lament -- than the outcome.

Legal fees for the 11 parents who filed the suit are expected to be at least "seven figures," said Witold Walczak, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania's legal director.

If the parents win, their attorneys are expected to
petition the court to make the defendants -- the school district and its board -- pay their legal fees.

The court would consider the amount proposed by the attorneys; then the judge would make a decision.

According to attorneys with the Pennsylvania State School Boards Association, school board members are immune from having their personal finances used toward such legal fees, unless it is found they were not fulfilling their duties as school board members as stipulated in the state's School Code, said spokesman Scott Shewell.

Spokesmen for both the PSBA and the state's Department of Education said they are not aware of any case where school board members were held financially responsible for legal costs stemming from school board-related litigation.

So the school district, which is funded with local school taxes and some state and federal money, would have to pay the legal fees.


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Not insured: Board president Sheila Harkins and superintendent Richard Nilsen both said the district does not have insurance that would pay for a court loss.

"We don't even want to go there (losing)," Harkins said.

She said the school board might solicit donations to help cover the costs if the parents win the suit.

The money includes the cost of ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State attorneys, travel expenses, expert witness, transcripts and other legal and research-related costs for this trial.

Although the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLC has offered its services free, Walczak said the parents' attorneys will include fees for Pepper's attorneys if the parents win.

If the parents lose, both sides of the suit are responsible for their own legal fees.

Because Thomas More Law Center is defending the district free of charge, the school district would not have to pay anything if the district and board win.

Thomas More is funded by contributions and would have to absorb the cost, as would the ACLU, AU, and Pepper Hamilton if the parents lose.

Funded by contributions: According to its Web site, Thomas More was founded six years ago with start-up funds from conservative Catholic philanthropist Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza. Though Monaghan paid as much as $1.5 million per year to pay the law center's operating costs in its fledgling years, the firm now operates through contributions made by 50,000 members and donors.

The ACLU generates money from annual dues and contributions from more than 400,000 members and supporters.

The nonprofit organization does not receive any government funding, but receives grants from private foundations and individuals.

What's at stake: Richard Thompson, top attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, refused to estimate the amount of legal fees either side of the debate has amassed.

"That (money) is not what is at stake here," he said. "What's at stake here is the Constitution."

Thompson said the first thing he will do if the school board loses is file an appeal with the next highest court, taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if he is able.

-- Reach Christina Kauffman at 505-5434 or ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.