• 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

  • Lifestyle

    Return of the RV: ’5-star camping’ is on the rise

    by Liz Raines on Jun 27, 22:54

    Many out-of-staters are now picking wheels over water when it comes to making the most of an Alaskan summer. After taking a hit during the 2009 recession, the sale and rental of recreational vehicles (RV) is on the rise. According to Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), RV shipments nationwide dropped dramatically between the summers of […]

  • Sports

    Chinooks’ skipper beats the odds, returns to Alaska and the baseball diamond

    by Dave Goldman on Jun 27, 22:44

    Walk around Alaska long enough and someone will tell you they’re “living the dream.” Jon Groth can relate. The Chugiak High School Chinooks head baseball coach made a triumphant return to the diamond and his team after a season long absence in 2015. It could have been longer. Groth had led the Chinooks since 2012. But in the fall of 2014 he […]

  • Lifestyle

    ‘Parade of Bears’: Bright, colorful bears to find permanent homes in Anchorage

    by Shannon Ballard on Jun 27, 21:59

    Fifteen full-size bears arrived in Anchorage over the weekend. They’re not grizzlies or black bears—they’re made of fiberglass and are part of a public art exhibit, much like other animal statues that have been featured in major cities around the world. Local businesses paid about $1,750 to sponsor one of the bear sculptures and chose artists […]

  • Lifestyle

    Preventable deaths: What you can do if someone is overdosing on drugs

    by Alexis Fernandez on Jun 27, 21:53

    As the Anchorage Police Department tries to figure out what led up to the death of 45-year-old Darlene Kunayak, they want to encourage the public to call 911 if they see someone in a possible overdose situation. APD believes Kunayak died of a heroin overdose on May 7. Autopsy results showed no signs of foul […]

  • News

    Top command change coming to JBER

    by Bonney Bowman on Jun 27, 21:33

    In just two weeks, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will have a new commander. Col. Brian Bruckbauer’s two-year post is coming to an end. He called Alaska a “dream assignment” and said leaving will be bittersweet for him and his family. As the so-called “Mayor of JBER”, Bruckbauer said when he first arrived in Alaska, handling the […]

  • News

    BlueCrest Energy launches ‘Cosmopolitan’ project at Anchor Point

    by Rhonda McBride on Jun 27, 21:19

    Cook Inlet may be an aging oil field, but it still has some surprises. A Texas company struck oil in March near Anchor Point and hopes to tap a reservoir that could hold between 70 and 200 million barrels of oil. BlueCrest Energy may have its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, but it’s headed by Benjamin […]

  • News

    Potential record-setting year for Anchorage road construction projects

    by Lauren Maxwell on Jun 27, 19:17

    The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) says this year could set a new record for road construction projects in Southcentral Alaska. DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said 2015 set a record, with more than $300 million spent on projects. This year, she said, spending could be even higher. McCarthy said the biggest ongoing project […]

  • News

    Pediatricians urged to screen teens for suicide risks

    by Ashley Welch / CBS News on Jun 27, 16:22

    In the wake of new information that suicide has risen to the second-leading cause of death among adolescents, a leading group of physicians is urging pediatricians to screen their patients for suicidal thoughts and risk factors. In a new report, the American Academy of Pediatricians offers guidelines to help identify at-risk teens. According to the group, some […]