Bill would stiffen penalty for lying in court

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill that would stiffen the penalty for lying in court will again come before the state Legislature. Under House Bill 86, a party to a lawsuit or a lawyer could lose a case for lying and be subject to another lawsuit for damages.

This is Rep. Eldon Mulder's fourth try at the bill. The Anchorage Republican introduced it in each of the last three sessions. Twice it passed the House, but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Wrangell Republican Sen. Robin Taylor, a lawyer and former judge.

''The basic premise is you have to tell the truth in court or you can be held financially responsible, especially if the spirit and intent is to mislead,'' Mulder said after introducing the bill this week.

No specific event prompted him to propose the bill initially, Mulder said, but since then people have come to him with stories of their troubles in court, and in surveys his constituents support it.

''It's one of those accountability type things, accountability type measures that really expects those people who are going to go to court are going to play fair,'' Mulder said. ''If you attempt to lie or deceive the court, you can be held financially liable for that.''

Opponents of the bill say it sounds good, but in practice would create more problems than it solves.

Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, said lawyers who lie should be punished, but the case itself shouldn't be decided on that basis. That could result in the wrong party winning a case because of one lie when the rest of the claim is true, he said. He raised the specter of a clearly sane person being declared mentally incompetent because he told a lie during a hearing to determine competency.

Mulder said safeguards in the bill protect against that sort of event. The lie would have to be intentional and material to the claim, he said. A suit wouldn't be dismissed if doing so would hurt another person who wasn't involved in the lie.

The bill applies only to civil suits and exempts those brought by prison inmates and those involving divorce, child custody, small claims or determining whether a child has been neglected or abused. Also, the lawyer would have 21 days to correct a misstatement after the other side challenged it.

''If you straighten it out, you can't be sued,'' Mulder said.

Some attorneys say 21 days isn't enough. Anchorage attorney Ray Brown said a case may involve 100 depositions, 30 expert witnesses and months or years of litigation, and assuming the truth on an issue can be established in 21 days is unrealistic.

Even after cases are over, both sides will still come out claiming they were right and the other was wrong, said Brown, co-chairman of the political arm of the Alaska Academy of Trial Lawyers.

''As you look at this bill it proceeds from the premise that what is true and what is false is both black and white and knowable,'' said Michael Schneider, the other co-chairman of the group. ''That just isn't consistent with human experience.''

Schneider predicted lawsuits would proliferate. He could file suit against nearly all defense attorneys he opposes, he said, because since they have just 20 days to respond to a suit they routinely deny all wrongdoing initially.

''This kind of a bill really burdens both sides of the case, makes it difficult to explore cases in the kind of logical manner they're usually explored,'' Schneider said.

Lawyers says existing Alaska Court Rules already prohibit filing claims without having reasonably inquired as to whether they're factual. Those rules also prohibit filing frivolous suits and presenting false evidence.

Mulder said he doesn't believe the current discipline system works.

''It's rarely if ever enforced and understandably so,'' Mulder said. ''You're talking about a fraternity of lawyers.''

He believes people have lost confidence in the court system and the measure will help restore that.

''It'll also allow some people to be made whole who've been disenfranchised in court by those who are opposing them with lies,'' Mulder said. Lawyers don't understand the frustration non-lawyers feel with the system, he said.

''I think they overlook the fact that we in the public expect that in such an environment everybody's going to play by the same rules when it comes to telling the truth,'' Mulder said.

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