Bill caps legal fees for suits in the public interest

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2005

A proposal by Gov. Frank Murkowski aims to cut the amount of legal fees the state and municipalities must pay under lawsuits deemed to be in the public interest.

Opponents of the plan said the bill would have a chilling effect on lawsuits brought against the state by those who cannot afford a lawyer.

The state and its cities are required to pay full attorney fees for those who win cases involving issues that serve the public interest and do not benefit an individual financially. Murkowski's bill would cap the fees at 30 percent for cases that go to trial and at 20 percent for those that do not, according to Chris Kennedy, a state assistant attorney general.

"This is what litigants are usually awarded," he said, noting that Alaska is the only state that awards repayment of all legal fees to winning litigants.

He said the state pays an average of $600,000 a year in reimbursed legal fees.

The proposal is Murkowski's second shot at curbing the litigant law. In 2003, the Legislature approved a Murkowski proposal to eliminate legal fee reimbursements and require losing litigants to pay the states' legal fees.

Murkowski said in 2003 that the bill would prevent frivolous lawsuits from environmentalists.

But a Juneau Superior Court judge struck down the law in April, ruling that it did not receive the two-thirds majority vote from the Legislature necessary to change the court rules.

The state has appealed the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Murkowski Chief of Staff Jim Clark said the governor does not want the state to encourage or discourage lawsuits but that he wants the state to be on even footing with the litigants.

Ken Jacobus, an Anchorage attorney who has argued public interest litigant cases, said the litigant law levels the playing field for those who cannot compete financially with the state Department of Law.

"The whole idea of public interest litigant law is to exercise these checks and balances," Jacobus said.



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