Murkowski proposes curbs to environmental lawsuits

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Environmental groups who unsuccessfully sue the state could be forced to pay attorney fees under a measure proposed by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Two bills proposing changes in the state's public interest litigant rules -- House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 97 -- were introduced in the Legislature on Monday by request of the governor.

They would change court rules that currently allow public interest litigant groups to recoup attorney fees when they successfully challenge the state in court. Such groups aren't liable for attorney fees when they lose.

But Murkowski proposes changing court rules in cases that challenge some decisions made by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Game.

If the changes are approved by the Legislature, such groups would be liable for a percentage of attorney fees accrued by the state should they lose their case.

In a letter to the Legislature, Murkowski said the current court rules create an incentive for some groups to challenge state resource development decisions.

''This bill would redress this imbalance in the narrow group of cases involving resource agencies,'' Murkowski said.

The bill proposes changing attorney fees provisions of the Alaska Rule of Civil Procedures. That requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.

The Alaska Public Interest Research Group is opposed to the measure, said spokesman Steve Cleary.

Current rules protecting public interest litigants are a valuable tool for some groups to challenge what they deem as bad public policy, Cleary said. The proposed changes could make groups too fearful of having to pay high attorney fees for challenging a bad state decision to plead their case in court, he said.

Cleary said the bill could also affect Alaska Native groups that challenge subsistence decisions, as well as hunting and fishing groups that disagree with state allocation rulings.

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