Judge strikes down new 'loser pays' law

Governor's plan would have made environmental groups pay legal fees for lost cases against the state

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2004

A Juneau Superior Court judge struck down a new state law intended to make environmental groups pay legal fees in unsuccessful court challenges against the state.

Enacted last year by the GOP-controlled Legislature at the request of Gov. Frank Murkowski, the law took aim at public interest litigant rules that exempt some from Alaska's "loser pays" rules.

The Murkowski administration sought the bill out of concern that frivolous environmental lawsuits were slowing economic development.

But Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins ruled it was improperly approved by the Legislature and would prevent a wide range of people from challenging the state in court.

"It hit everyone," said Southeast Alaska Conservation Council spokesman Buck Lindekugel. "It adversely affects a whole range of interests from disabled folks, to election concerns to Native interests trying to protect traditional uses of their land."

The environmental group brought a lawsuit along with the Native Village of Nunapitchuk, Association of Village Council Presidents, Republican Moderate Party Inc., the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

Plaintiffs argued the bill violates the state constitution's equal protection and due process clauses.

Alaska is the only state in the nation that holds losing parties responsible for the winning side's attorneys fees and costs. But the law exempts public interest groups and citizens filing non-monetary cases challenging the decisions of state agencies.

House Bill 145 does away with that exemption in all cases but those involving the state constitution.

In striking down the law, Collins said the public interest litigant rules are "grounded in equity and intended to encourage parties to bring issues of public interest to the courts, without the threat of adverse fee awards."

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