Public-interest-litigant bill voted down

Backers of legislation argue current litigant law enables frivolous lawsuits

Posted: Friday, May 07, 2004

The state Senate failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority vote Thursday to overturn a recent court case maintaining Alaskans' rights to public-interest-litigant lawsuits.

The public-interest-litigant law, established by the Alaska Su-preme Court in 1970, allows citizens to sue the state on non-monetary issues without fear of paying court costs if they lose.

Such lawsuits range from redistricting to environmental issues to subsistence hunting and fishing. But lawmakers last session, at the request of Gov. Frank Murkowski, passed a bill preventing the lawsuits. Alaska is the only state with such a public-interest-litigant law.

Republicans have argued that the litigant law has enabled environmentalists to file frivolous lawsuits without fear of hefty court costs.

"If we want to allow the stopping of harvesting natural resources in the state of Alaska, we leave things the way they are," said Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks.

In September, a coalition of environmental groups, Native organizations and the Republican Moderate Party challenged the Legislature's elimination of the law.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins ruled that lawmakers did not secure the necessary two-thirds majority vote to change the court rule.

"The state spent $78,000 defending that case and lost, and the state's going to spend another $78,000 defending the lawsuit that's going to result from this bill and it's going to lose," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, prior to the floor vote.

On Thursday, the state Senate failed by two votes to get a two-thirds majority. The proposal did gain approval by a simple majority. But without a two-thirds majority vote to satisfy the court's provision, none of the operative sections of the proposal are valid.

"Certainly it's not perfect," said Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin. "Certainly there will be frivolous lawsuits out there. But I think to try to stop this in its entirety is probably not the way we want to go."

Seekins called for a revote of the measure, which comes up on the Senate floor today.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at

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