Public interest lawsuit bill clears House committee

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) Environmental groups and others challenging state resource agency decisions in court could pay more in legal costs under a bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The bill would apply to court cases that challenge some decisions made by the state departments of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources, and Fish and Game.

The measure would not allow people bringing those lawsuits to be treated as public interest litigants when it comes to deciding attorney fees.

Public interest litigants can recoup attorney fees when they successfully challenge the state, even if they only succeed on parts of their case. And they aren't liable for the other party's attorney fees when they lose.

Supporters of the bill say being treated as public interest litigants has given environmental groups an incentive to file lawsuits, which slows down economic development. Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration is pushing the legislation.

But Rep. Dan Ogg, R-Kodiak, expressed concern Wednesday the bill would not deter large, well-funded environmental groups. He fears, instead, it could hurt fishermen and other resource users who want to challenge state agency decisions but cannot afford the financial risk.

The measure passed the Judiciary Committee 4-3. Ogg joined Anchorage Democrats Max Gruenberg and Les Gara in voting against moving the bill on to the House Finance Committee.

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