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Bill Would Shield Groups from Failed State Lawsuit Costs

By Mallory Peebles, Crime and Law Enforcement, Natural Resources and Parks Reporter, Fill-in Anchor, mpeebles@ktuu.com
Published On: Feb 26 2014 05:15:00 PM AKST

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) has a bill pending that would protect public interest groups that sue the State of Alaska and lose from being liable for the state's attorney's fees.

ANCHORAGE -

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) has a bill pending that would protect public interest groups that sue the State of Alaska and lose from being liable for the state's attorney's fees.

Wielechowski says Senate Bill 181 was drafted after a number of plaintiffs, including elder Alaska statesman Vic Fischer and former first lady Bella Hammond, lost their case against the state and the Pebble Partnership.

"Alaska is the only state in the nation like that," Wielechowski said. "If you are challenging the state government, you shouldn't worry that you're going to potentially lose your home or lose your life savings."

Currently in Alaska, if a plaintiff loses a civil case the defendant can hold them accountable for up to 30 percent of the costs incurred to fight the case, such as attorney fees and clerical work.

There are exceptions for cases that contain a public interest, but that definition was tightened in 2003. 

The lawsuit by Fischer, Hammond, two other individuals and a collection of tribal groups, challenged the state Department of Natural Resources' decision to let Pebble have permits for its exploratory work in the Bristol Bay region without giving public notice.

After losing their case, the plaintiffs now facing a bill of about $1 million from both the state and Pebble Partnership. Pebble was not an originally a defendant, but joined the case later.

Fischer says the plaintiffs brought the case forward because they felt the state's actions were in violation of the Alaska constitution. 

"If I had to pay all of the cost of the million dollars, I could write them a check -- but no bank would honor that because I don't have that kind of resources," Fischer said. 

Fischer, Hammond and the rest of the plaintiffs involved have appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Wielechowski says Senate Bill 181 must be reviewed by the Finance Committee and the Judiciary Committee before a floor vote.