Groups challenge new law aimed at curbing public-interest lawsuits

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2003

JUNEAU - An Alaska Native village joined with environmentalists and organizers of the Republican Moderate Party to dispute a new law aimed at curbing some public interest litigant lawsuits.

They filed a lawsuit in Juneau Superior Court on Wednesday alleging future disputes over major public policy issues will be affected.

The lawsuit was filed one day before House Bill 145, passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Frank Murkowski, is to take effect.

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. Supporters say it will stop environmentalists from derailing projects important to the state economy.

But the groups challenging the new law allege, among other things, the Legislature effectively changed court doctrine without the required two-thirds vote. The Senate vote was 12-8, the House vote 25-13.

"This isn't a doctrine that protects one interest group from another. It's a doctrine that's been applied in a very evenhanded manner to protect anyone who raises issues of public concern," said Eric Johnson, attorney for the Native village of Nunapitchuk and the Association of Village Council Presidents.

They joined the lawsuit with the Republican Moderate Party Inc., the Alaska Center for the Environment, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

The groups also allege the bill violates the state constitution's equal protection and due process clauses. They allege groups will be intimidated from bringing legal actions out of liability fears.

"Governor Murkowski is attempting to tilt the playing field against citizens in favor of those with deep pockets," said Ray Metcalfe, chairman of the Republican Moderate Party, which has been decertified due to low voter numbers.

The Murkowski administration sought the bill out of concern that environmental lawsuits were slowing economic development, said a Murkowski spokesman.

"What we are doing here with this bill is making it more difficult for people with frivolous lawsuits to tie up projects for years," said press secretary John Manly. "We're not tilting the playing field, we are leveling the playing field."

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