House passes bill banning lying in court

Posted: Wednesday, March 29, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill that that would install a ''You lie, you lose'' policy for participants in civil trials won approval in the state House on Tuesday.

House Bill 42, sponsored by Rep. Eldon Mulder, requires judges to dismiss claims, or the defense against a claim, if lawyers or clients intentionally make false statements that are crucial to their cases.

''If you lie in court and it's a material part of the case, in other words, if it's important, you can be held financially responsible for that action,'' said Mulder, R-Anchorage. ''Very simple, very direct.''

The bill passed 25-8. Four minority Democrats joined the Republican-controlled majority in voting for the bill.

Mulder said the bill is aimed at reducing frivolous pleadings that clog the courts and increase the cost of litigation.

But Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, said the bill would make lawsuits hinge not on the merits of the claims, but on whether anyone told a lie during the proceedings. That's the wrong focus, he said.

''You're fundamentally changing what a judgment means,'' Croft said.

Croft and other attorneys said Mulder presented no research that reflects a problem in the courts or indicating that sanctions available to judges are not effective.

Croft said cases would be thrown out or lost for minor misstatements uttered in the heat of the moment, no matter what the merits of the case.

''The judge has no discretion,'' Croft said. ''It's a fundamentally illogical result.''

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said attorneys regularly are disciplined for improper conduct but the legal profession does a poor job of telling the public.

Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said courts have ways to sanction lying in court all the way from rules to perjury charges. The bill, he said, would completely change how cases are argued.

''We have an adversarial process designed to get at the truth, designed to get at justice,'' Berkowitz said. ''The way it works is, people take their own position and slowly work their way toward the middle.''

Berkowitz said the bill will not allow the discovery process, in which a plaintiff makes a claim based on the best information possible and finds out during the judicial process if it's true.

''If there's any intent at the time you file the complaint that is not borne out by what you discover later, those causes of action go away,'' Berkowitz said.

Rep. Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks, said critics seemed to be arguing that lies should not be taken out of an attorney's legal toolbox because they could help establish the truth.

''That's tantamount to saying the end justifies the means,'' Whitaker said.

Rep. Jeannette James, R-North Pole, said opponents might vote differently if they had been in a lawsuit where an opponent told an outright lie. She said that happened in a lawsuit she filed. The law would be a deterrent to lying, James said.

''If people believe they could lose the case, they won't lie,'' James said.

Mulder acknowledged court rules to discourage lying but said judges do not use them enough, in part because judges are attorneys themselves who have been selected or appointed by peers.

He likened his bill to presumptive sentencing for liars.

''This law provides definite and certain sanctions,'' Mulder said.

He said the bill allows people to change their statements within 21 days after they are documented to be false. He said judges could continue cases if dismissal was determined to be unfair to a person not involved with telling the lie.

The lying law would not apply to divorce cases, custody and child support cases, cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, or small claims court.

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