130402_CCF_HeadlineImage_JudgeGavelIn a Friday filing, United States District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan found that Feld Entertainment — the parent company of the Ringling Brothers circus — was entitled to attorneys’ fees in a longstanding litigation by a series of animal rights and animal liberation groups. To call it longstanding is almost an understatement: Sullivan dismissed the suit in late 2009, which was affirmed by a circuit court in 2011, finding that a number of animal rights groups lacked the legal authority to file suit claiming — and perhaps paid a plaintiff to claim — that Feld was engaged in elephant cruelty.

Now, the judge has ruled that “this case was groundless and unreasonable from its inception” and the animal rights plaintiffs must pay Feld’s legal fees. And while the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) — which was deeply tied to the animal liberationist side of the case — wasn’t held liable, the judge left open the question of whether the nation’s richest animal liberation group might find itself on the hook at a later date should Feld choose to re-argue that portion of its case. (One of the original plaintiffs that may have to pay up as a result of this finding, the Fund for Animals, was absorbed into the HSUS corporate empire during the case.)

And lest you forget, there’s still a second lawsuit before Sullivan. In this one the tables are turned: Feld is suing HSUS and others alleging they engaged in a racketeering conspiracy in violation of federal RICO law. A different animal rights group, the ASPCA, perhaps saw which way the legal winds were blowing in that case and paid Feld almost $10 million in December to settle both cases.

The editors of The Wall Street Journal praised Judge Sullivan’s decision to award legal fees to Feld, and they took HSUS boss Wayne Pacelle to task for his petulant hectoring of Feld’s defense of its business. The editors write:

The animal-rights crowd responded with letters to the editor suggesting that the lawsuit had been a splendid, public-spirited affair. Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle wrote that Feld was a “disgruntled corporation” trying to “silence its critics” because it has filed a “grudge suit” of its own. Mr. Pacelle is upset that plaintiffs have been nailed for abusing the courts to harass a law-abiding company.

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.