For Immediate Release, October 11, 2011
Contact: John Buse, (323) 533-4416
Republicans Push Bill to Limit Access to Justice for Citizens, Nonprofits
Right-wing Politicians Rely on Misinformation in Attacking Law That Holds Government Accountable
WASHINGTON— Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are holding a hearing today as part of a larger effort to limit the ability of citizens and nonprofit groups to go to court when the federal government isn’t following the law. The bill (H.R. 1996) under consideration by the Subcommittee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law would set new restrictions on the Equal Access to Justice Act, a law signed by President Ronald Reagan that for decades has allowed citizens and nonprofits to hold the government accountable on a vast range of issues, including those affecting the environment, veterans’ benefits, religious freedom and free speech.
“In a political system where money buys influence in Congress, the courts are the great equalizer in giving everyday citizens a voice and making sure the government follows the law,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Infringing on citizen access to justice only tips the scales in favor of big corporations and those who can afford an army of lobbyists in Washington.”
The Equal Access to Justice Act allows attorney fees to be awarded to qualified groups or individuals who win lawsuits challenging a government action and show that the government’s position was not “substantially justified.”
Those pushing H.R. 1996 have taken specific aim at attorney fees when environmental groups prevail in lawsuits against the government. Republicans incorrectly claim that conservation nonprofits are somehow getting rich on attorney fees and using those fees as substantial funding sources for their organizations.
Environmental groups collect a small portion of overall EAJA fees. The Center for Biological Diversity receives only a tiny fraction — less than half of 1 percent, on average — of its total annual income from attorney fees recovered through the Act. Those suits were filed to ensure that federal agencies comply with laws that protect imperiled species and their habitat.
“No one’s getting rich by making the government follow the law,” said Suckling. “Republicans are using this bill as a back-door attack on environmental laws they don’t like. The end result will be restricting citizen access to the court system and a federal government that’s less accountable to the people.”
Some in Congress have rightly called for more transparency in EAJA fee awards. The original law had several important provisions that provided public tracking of these fees; those tracking mechanisms were cut by the Republican-led Congress in 1995 and should be reinstated.
Two recent studies provide important new insight on attorney-fee awards. One study published in the Journal of Forestry (“The Equal Access to Justice Act and U.S. Forest Service Land Management: Incentives to Litigate?” by M.J. Mortimer and R.W. Malmsheimer) found that barely half of fee payments from cases involving the U.S. Forest Service went to environmental groups over a seven-year study period. Another study, released in August by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, found that businesses and trade groups, not environmentalists, file the most lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency.