By Rep. John Harris
July 21, 2007
The Alaska Supreme Court created an exemption from the "Loser Pays" system for individuals who brought litigation on the "public's behalf." At the time the court created it, the exemption sounded noble.
However, with time this exemption created a cottage industry for outside environmental groups to sue anyone trying to build something in Alaska without having to worry about the consequences of losing. If an environmental group sued to stop a development and lost, it did not have to pay the costs incurred by the other side. If the group won on any part of its lawsuit -- no matter how small or technical -- it would be reimbursed 100 percent of its attorneys' fees.
This is what happened recently in the predator control case in Palmer. The judge actually ruled against an Outside animal rights group and held that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had the authority to operate a predator control program. However, the judge also ruled that the Board of Game had made a technical mistake in adopting the regulations and that it needed to go back and adopt new regulations.
This ruling effectively denied the Outside group its entire case. But, because there was a technical glitch in the adoption of the regulations, the state had to pay them their entire attorneys' fees in bringing this action. We Alaskans paid $95,000 for the Connecticut-based group's attorneys' fees even though it really lost its case.
And it isn't just wildlife management. Outside interests began abusing the "Loser Pays" exception to delay mining, timber and oil and gas development. Outside interests suing on behalf of the Alaska public?
Thankfully, after years of efforts to rein in the exception to "loser pays," the Legislature in 2003 passed House Bill 145, introduced by Gov. Murkowski, and returned the state to the common-sense approach that Alaskans had created years ago.
But of course the story doesn't end there. Three Alaska environmental groups along with others sued to stop the law. The Juneau Superior Court overturned the law, holding that the legislation changed a court rule of procedure and needed a two-thirds majority vote -- which it had not received.
On April 20, after almost four years, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld House Bill 145. The ruling levels the playing field for the award of attorneys' fees in lawsuits by reinstituting the "loser pays" system for everyone.
This was a major win for the
state and for private individuals and companies trying to create
jobs and develop Alaska's natural resources. All most people
ask for is a level playing field. Now when a nonprofit environmental
law firm sues an Alaskan it is treated the same way the Alaskan
would be treated if they sued the nonprofit environmental law
firm. You lose, you pay. Isn't that the way it should be?
Received July 19, 2007 - Published July 21, 2007
About: Rep. John Harris (R) is Speaker of the House, representing District 12 - Big Delta, Birchwood, Cascade Island, Chickaloon, Delta Junction, Eielson AFB, Glennallen, Harding Lake, Lake Louise, Mat-Su - Richardson, Palmer - Richardson, Paxson, Salcha, Sheep Mountain, Summit, Sutton, Thompson Pass, Trail Lakes, Trimms Camp, Unakwik Inlet, and Valdez.
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