• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
3m 14s

Legislation proposed to protect public litigants

By Rhonda McBride 6:24 AM December 20, 2013

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, (D) Anchorage, wants to overturn a 2003 law which allows the winners in public interest lawsuits to collect legal fees from the losers.

ANCHORAGE – An Anchorage state senator believes Alaskans should have the right to sue the state without fear of financial ruin, so he is introducing legislation to protect these rights.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, (D) Anchorage, wants to overturn a law signed by former Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2003, which allows the winners in public interest lawsuits to collect legal fees from the losers.

“Alaska is the only state in the country where the losers have to pay the winner’s attorneys’ fees,” Wielechowski said. “It has a real chilling effect on the ability of people to challenge government.”

Public interest litigation is narrowly defined, Wielechowski said.

“If you’re a public interest litigant, you have to be pushing something in the public’s interest,” Wielechowski said. “It can’t be for your own economic interest or something in your backyard. It has to be something that impacts a number of people.”

Wielechowski believes a lawsuit filed by Vic Fischer, one of the authors of the state constitution, and former First Lady Bella Hammond, illustrates the dangers of the law passed in 2003 because it allows the winners to collect a half million dollars in legal fees from them.

“I thought it was a bad law to begin with,” he said. “Vic and Bella’s case shows why. It’s the principal at stake. We don’t want a society where only the rich can afford to go before the judiciary.”

Wielechowski wasn’t in the legislature when the “loser pay” law was passed, but he said he read the minutes in the debates leading up to passage — and one of the fears back then was that ordinary citizens who stood up to government would be penalized.

“I think it’s a terrible law,” he said.

Supporters of the law argued that too many lawsuits are frivolous, aimed at blocking development.

Wielechowski believes this can be avoided if the courts expedite public litigation cases, so projects aren’t delayed without good cause.

In 2009, Fischer and Hammond joined Nunamata Aulukestai, a group representing tribal organizations in Bristol Bay, and several others, in suing the Department of Natural Resources over its handling of the Pebble Mine project.

Less than a year later, the Pebble opponents lost their lawsuit and faced more than $1 million in legal fees.

Wielechowski called on Gov. Sean Parnell to put an end to efforts to collect fees from Fischer and Hammond and to “stop trying to intimidate” them.

But Sharon Leighow, press secretary for Parnell, said Wielechowski neglects to point out neither the governor nor the state has attempted to collect legal fees from Fischer or Hammond, nor any of the individuals involved in the lawsuit.  The state instead focused on Nunamta Aulukestai, Leighow said. Nunamta Alukestai means “Caretakers of the Land” in the Yup’ik language.

According to Leighow, it was the Pebble Limited Partnership, which joined the state in defense of the lawsuit, which is trying to collect from Fischer and Hammond.

Wielechowsi argues that this doesn’t let the governor off the hook.

“He could have intervened on their behalf,” Wielechowski said. “He could order his attorney general to file papers in court. I think the governor has a huge amount of sway.”

“It’s not the governor’s role to advise a company on litigation,” Leighow said, who also said the governor has no reaction to Wielechowski’s proposed legislation. “The governor doesn’t typically comment on legislation that hasn’t been filed.”

Wielechowski hopes his bill will reopen the debate over the 2003 “loser pays” law — and consider the damage to democratic principles. He said Fischer and Hammond should be applauded, not punished.

In the meantime, the Alaska Supreme Court has just heard an appeal of the case that Fischer and Hammond lost. If they, and others who are party to the lawsuit prevail, it could mean a sudden reversal of fortunes.

Latest Stories

  • Sports

    Alaskan coaching legend returns to old stomping ground

    by KTVA Sports on Dec 18, 11:06

    Basketball coach Chuck White, who earned 18 state titles in Alaska, returned to the place where he earned his reputation as one of the foremost teachers of high school basketball. People packed the gym for an annual alumni game Wednesday that tipped off the Thunderbirds Classic Tournament at East High School.

  • News

    Hose failure blamed for gas that sickened soldiers

    by Associated Press on Dec 18, 10:35

    Army investigators in Alaska have concluded that a corroded vent hose on a field stove led to a buildup of carbon monoxide that sickened 23 soldiers during a September exercise. Lt. Col. Alan Brown tells the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (http://bit.ly/1GVgjkp) that the toxic gas came from a gas-fueled oven used to heat trays of food […]

  • News

    A friend remembers Irma Williams

    by Alexis Fernandez on Dec 18, 8:28

    Earlier this week, authorities charged Irma Williams’ ex-boyfriend Michael Memeo with murder and tampering with evidence in connection with her death. For Edna Iyatunguk, memories of the 54-year-old mother are still clear. “She was awesome, she was always laughing. We talked about a lot, just together, you know — friends, like we were sisters or […]

  • Weather

    Daybreak weather, Dec. 18

    by Brett Shepard on Dec 18, 7:52

    Skies will be mostly to partly cloudy today in Southcentral. In the Southeast rain and wind will be found over the southern half of the Panhandle with mostly to partly cloudy skies to the north. In the Interior skies will be mostly to partly sunny. On the North Slope skies will be mostly cloudy with […]

  • News

    Group to provide rural dog care in YK villages

    by Associated Press on Dec 18, 7:29

    A nonprofit veterinary group will provide free spay and neutering services for dogs in two Yukon-Kuskokwim villages this week. KYUK reports (http://is.gd/E1bPqX) the Alaska Native Rural Veterinary group will be in Tuntutuliak and Kongiganak on Wednesday and Thursday. Group leader Angie Fitch in Fairbanks says it’s too expensive for people in rural Alaska to fly […]

  • Sports

    International coach sparks speedskating in Anchorage

    by KTVA Sports on Dec 18, 7:12

    John Monroe says speedskating has been lacking in Alaska, and he’s out to change that. Monroe has been all over the world competing and, more recently, coaching the sport of speedskating. He was an assistant coach with the U.S. short-track team, took over the Dutch team after the Torino Olympics and through the Vancouver games. After […]

  • News

    Anchorage man hopes to revitalize Ahtna language with new children’s book

    by Heather Hintze on Dec 17, 21:32

    It all starts with a story. “Ndoxe Tiziyaas?” asked Grant Rebne. That’s half of the title of his new children’s book, with the other half translating to English as “Where are you going?” Rebne hopes the book will inspire people to learn and preserve his native language, Ahtna. “Our language shows our culture,” Rebne said. “It’s who […]

  • News

    Alaska Zoo takes in orphaned bear cubs

    by Bonney Bowman on Dec 17, 21:21

    Two orphaned black bear cubs will have a second shot at life thanks to some TLC at the Alaska Zoo. One of the cubs, a 29-pound male, was found living under a porch in Eagle with an infected bite wound. The other, a 15-pound female, is from Kasilof. She was very underweight, according to zoo executives. […]