Murkowski proposes curbs to environmental lawsuits

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Environmental groups that unsuccessfully sue the state could be forced to pay legal fees under a measure proposed by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Two bills proposing changes in the state's public interest litigant rules were introduced in the Legislature on Monday by request of the governor.

House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 97 would change court rules that allow public interest litigant groups to recoup legal fees when they successfully challenge the state in court. Such groups aren't liable for legal fees when they lose.

Murkowski proposes changing court rules in cases that challenge some decisions made by the state Departments of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources and Fish and Game.

If the changes are approved by the Legislature, such groups would be liable for a percentage of attorney fees accrued by the state should they lose their case.

In a letter to the Legislature, Murkowski said current court rules create an incentive for some groups to challenge state resource-development decisions.

"This bill would redress this imbalance in the narrow group of cases involving resource agencies," Murkowski said.

The bill proposes changing legal-fee provisions of the Alaska Rule of Civil Procedures. Such a change requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.

The Alaska Public Interest Research Group opposes the measure, said spokesman Steve Cleary.

Rules protecting public-interest litigants are a valuable tool for some groups to challenge what they see as bad public policy, Cleary said. Murkowski's changes could scare off groups wanting to challenge a bad decision, he said.

Cleary said such a bill also could affect Alaska Native groups that challenge subsistence decisions, as well as hunting and fishing groups that disagree with state allocation rulings.

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