The state will petition the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of 33,000 plaintiffs mired in a $2.5 billion punitive damages dispute with Exxon Mobil Corp., Gov. Sarah Palin said Monday.
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Palin said Attorney General Talis Colberg will file an amicus brief with the high court. Such legal filings reflect backing for one side of an argument, but come from someone not directly involved with the case.
Palin said the state has until Jan. 22, 2008, to file the brief. She said she wasn't sure what the effect would be, but added that the support is something the plaintiffs have lacked in the past.
"At least we are doing something," she said. "It surprises me that in the past the state hasn't filed this brief. You got the Legislature on board. You've got the administration on board and of course, you've got the public on board."
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Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear whether Exxon Mobil should pay $2.5 billion in punitive damages to victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that marred more than 1,200 miles of coastline in Prince William Sound. Plaintiffs still living include commercial fishermen, cannery workers, landowners, Alaska Natives, local governments and businesses.
Upon hearing the news, Palin said she asked Colberg to begin working on the brief. Palin said Monday that Colberg will outline the harm caused by the 11 million-gallon spill.
"We want to see resolution," Palin said. "We are not going to see resolution until the courts decide what Exxon is liable for. It creates more distrust between Alaskans and the judiciary."
Exxon already has paid more than $3.5 billion in cleanup costs and other penalties resulting from the spill, company spokesman Tony Cudmore said in a prepared statement.
"The punitive damages case has never been about compensating people for actual damages," Cudmore said.
"Rather it is about whether further punishment of Exxon Mobil is warranted," he said. "The company does not believe any punitive damages are warranted in this case."
Exxon Mobil has culled support from numerous organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and groups of shippers, the company said.
"The large number of trade associations that filed briefs in support of Exxon Mobil's petition to the Supreme Court is an indication of the concern which the business community has about this case," Cudmore said. "The business community and the maritime industry are closely watching this case."
Countering the support Exxon has marshaled is essential, said state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak.
"I would hope that the Supreme Court would take very, very seriously what the state of Alaska, which has been tremendously impacted by this, has to say about it," she said. "I would hope they would listen to the state."
The Supreme Court announcement last week came as the state Legislature returned to Juneau to consider raising the oil tax on net profits from 22.5 percent to 25 percent. Exxon Mobil is one of three major producers in the North Slope, which accounts for about 14 percent of the nation's domestic production.
One week later, state lawmakers remain angry that nearly 20 years after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the case is unresolved.
One House committee tried unsuccessfully to include language in the tax bill related to pending civil fines such as the one against Exxon.
"We've about had it," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, a fisherman in Southeast Alaska. "It didn't bother them to destroy communities. We've suffered throughout the Southeast, up north and everywhere. I'm tired of it."