House passes public interest lawsuits bill

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) The House passed a bill Thursday that could force public interest groups to pay some or all of the government's legal costs if they are on the losing end of lawsuits.

The House voted 23-14 in favor of the measure that would hold public interest groups or citizens filing public interest lawsuits liable for state's attorneys fees in unsuccessful cases.

Alaska holds losing parties responsible for the winning side's attorneys fees and costs, but the law exempts public interest groups and citizens filing non-monetary cases. The bill would do away with that exemption.

Supporters of the measure argued on the House floor that the bill will reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits that have slowed development projects in the state. Opponents said the bill will restrict justice to only those that can afford it.

''This is about David and Goliath allowing every citizen David to stand up to government Goliath,'' said Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. ''This bill reflects a fear of the public.''

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said Alaskans have used public interest litigation very effectively over the years. He cited several cases including Natives challenging logging near a sacred site, an Anchorage neighborhood group trying to get rid of a massage parlor, Kodiak fishermen unhappy with rules they felt benefited processors and a Kenai boating group that sued over strict river regulations.

''If the legislature passes this bill it will be one of the greatest mistakes it has made this session,'' Gara said. ''We are taking people's rights away.''

But Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said the bill is a good idea because Alaska is victim of too many frivolous lawsuits. The state has paid more than $7 million to public interest groups in the past decade, she said.

McGuire said the bill will force public interest groups to consider the costs if they lose, she said.

''I think we have become a highly litigious society,'' she said. ''I think it weeds out the frivolity.''

Rep. Beverly Masek, R-Willow, also spoke in favor of the bill because she said lawsuits have held the state back from pursuing development projects that could create more jobs.

The bill grew out of concerns from Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration that environmental lawsuits were slowing down economic development. But Gara and Berkowitz pointed out that the judgment money was from people who had good cases and won.

Gara said the law the House voted on was rewritten and went way beyond concerns over environmental lawsuits. He said the public had no chance to comment on the changed law.

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