Who funds citizen suits?

May 10, 2011

I wanted to make sure everyone saw the following article based on my recent interview with Feedstuffs, The Weekly Newspaper for Agribusiness.  In April, I testified before the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over funding the U.S. Forest Service. At the hearing, I discussed the importance of the local timber industry to rural communities such as those in and around the Allegheny National Forest and the numerous benefits harvesting will have on a forest’s overall health. I also discussed the challenges national forests face due to the endless and constant number of lawsuits against the Forest Service. This critically important issue was discussed in last week's Agriculture Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Forest Service's proposed planning rule and is the focus of the following article. 

 From Feedstuffs, The Weekly Newspaper for Agribusiness:

Who funds citizen suits?

May 9, 2011

EVER wonder who pays the high costs of pursuing citizen lawsuits through years of litigation?

Many of the legal fees incurred by activist groups that file court cases against federal agencies apparently are paid by the American taxpayer.

Decisions — or settlement agreements — in those cases have had profound effects on implementation of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and other public policies. The impacts are felt each time a federal agency makes the now-familiar claim: “The court made us do it.”Those lawsuits are a well-known problem, and the scope of the financing issue was articulated at a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing by Rep. Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.).

He said, “In my opinion, some environmental organizations and individuals are purposely using the legal system to try to expand upon the basic congressional intent and jurisdiction of the law. I also think they are using it as a very successful fund-raising program as well since the federal government reimburses most of those costs for them.”

In an interview with Feedstuffs, Thompson, chair of the House subcommittee on conservation, energy and forestry, explained that the court decisions or settlement agreements give federal agencies the legal cover to expand their guidance or rule-making on sensitive issues, many of which have profound economic effects.

Federal reimbursement for legal fees in successful citizen suits comes from a fund authorized in the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which Thompson said began with good intentions but, in recent years, has suffered from a lack of transparency.

Originally, the act “was spot on; it was a good thing for people who had been correctly wronged, ... but it has been hijacked” in recent years by many groups, he said.

Thompson said EAJA initially engendered “a lot of transparency” — agencies were required to track how much was spent and who received payments from the EAJA fund.

(EAJA established a fund with a permanent congressional appropriation hat is administered by each agency. According to a briefing paper, if a plaintiff prevails in a case over a federal agency and is awarded EAJA reimbursement for legal fees, the funds for that reimbursement are charged against the agency’s budget.)

The problem is that since 1995, there has been absolutely no way to know how much federal agencies are paying out for such legal fees or to whom. “For whatever reasons — and, I suspect, the wrong reasons — a past Congress eliminated those transparency requirements,” he said.

In the last Congress, however, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.) sponsored a bill to try to restore transparency requirements on EAJA reimbursements. Thompson was a cosponsor. He predicts that there will be another attempt to get it through the new Congress.

Through painstaking research, a Wyoming law firm was able to show that 13 environmental groups had brought more than 1,100 lawsuits against federal agencies in 17 states and the District of Columbia and collected more than $29 million. “That comes right out of the bottom line of the agencies that were sued,” Thompson pointed out. “Those are precious dollars.”