by Congressman Mike Simpson
“Many of us lament the ridiculous jury awards we hear about on television or read about in the newspaper. We shake our heads at the actions of judges, juries, and lawyers who defy commonsense and seek or award judgments that are excessive by any measure. We know that everything from the price of electric razors to the explosion of health care costs is driven upward in some measure by a broken legal system that seems out-of-touch with the real concerns of daily life.
“Nowhere are these laments more accurate than in the area of federal public land management.
“Regrettably, extremist organizations and unscrupulous lawyers have been successful over the past few decades in making untrained federal judges, rather than trained federal land managers, the real decision-makers on federal land management actions. Even more regrettably, this transfer of authority from federal agencies to judges has been funded to a large degree by you, the taxpayer, through a broken law known as the Equal Access to Justice Act.
“The Equal Access to Justice Act, or EAJA, began as a noble effort to provide people harmed by the federal government, but without the means to fight it, an opportunity to recover legal fees if their claims had merit. It was a worthwhile effort based on the concept that everyone should have the opportunity to challenge unjust actions of the federal government.
“Today, EAJA has an entire industry of litigants built around it – many of whom have made a lucrative career out of second guessing virtually every decision the Forest Service or BLM makes and leaving range and forest lands unhealthy and prone to catastrophic fires.
“This industry isn’t made up of ma-and-pa storeowners who are barely making ends meet. In reality, EAJA allows any business with a net worth of up to $7 million to participate but has no limits for the many so-called “non-profits” that engage in repeated EAJA abuse.
“The excesses of EAJA abuse have grown so out-of-control that courts have awarded attorney’s fees as large as $600/hour and, in some cases, these awards go to litigants that haven’t even prevailed in making their case. Worse yet, the federal government seems incapable of keeping track of EAJA payments.
“The result is that over the past two decades, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been awarded to a relatively small number of environmental litigants and that money has been used to file even more lawsuits.
“To begin a process of reining in these excessive EAJA abuses and limiting the incentives toward public land management through the courts, a number of my Congressional colleagues and I are taking action.
“As Chairman of the Subcommittee that funds the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the EPA, I have authored language requiring these agencies to report to Congress on the yearly costs of litigation, EAJA payments, and any settlements they agree to. And I am cosponsoring legislation that would cap reimbursements at $200 an hour, subject non-profits to the same standard as for-profits, and require that EAJA filers show a direct and personal monetary interest in order to qualify for payments.
“Through these and other efforts, I am hopeful that we can return EAJA to its noble roots and limit the excessive abuses that have given a good program a bad name. In doing so, we can protect taxpayers from outrageous expenditures, remove the incentives that have led to thousands of needless lawsuits, limit the influence of federal judges in public land management, and restore the appropriate role of trained professionals in the decision-making processes of the Forest Service and BLM.”