Equal Access to Justice Act amendment raises questions, concern
By John Bowman
Siskiyou Daily News
November 29, 2011
Yreka, Calif. — On Nov. 17 the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary approved HR 1996 – The Government Legislative Savings Act – by a 19-14 vote. The bill, if passed by both houses of Congress, would amend the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which was originally passed in 1980 to eliminate disincentives for people to fight illegal governmental actions by allowing successful plaintiffs to be reimbursed for their legal expenses.
The new bill would enact five substantial amendments to the EAJA. It:
• Requires that plaintiffs must show a “direct and personal monetary interest” in the case;
• Eliminates reimbursement of fees for cases argued by pro bono legal representation;
• Establishes new limitations on legal fee rates and amounts;
• Establishes a net-worth limitation for nonprofit or charitable organizations; and
• Requires public reporting of all EAJA awards and case details, and initiates a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to assess past EAJA awards.
The bill’s proponents say it will stop what they believe is a trend of environmental groups’ exploitation of the EAJA for financial gain.
A major supporter of the amendment, Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falon, said in a June press release, “Like so many other laws in this country, the original idea of the federal government reimbursing individuals and small businesses who have to fight against overreaching bureaucracy is noble. But like many original ideas, over the years EAJA and the payment of attorney fees out of the Judgment Fund on Endangered Species Act and other litigation has been distorted beyond recognition.”
But senior citizen groups, consumer advocacy groups and other opponents say the amendment to the 31-year-old law will affect far more than just environmental groups.
Visiting Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center Brian Wolfman recently testified before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the proposed legislation.
“H.R. 1996 would amend the EAJA in ways that would harm the American public and undermine the enforcement of laws meant to advance our health, safety and welfare,” Wolfman told the committee. “In short … it would eviscerate a law intended to protect Americans when they face unreasonable action by the federal government.”
Local attorney Michael Thamer said he believes that HR 1996 will do more harm than good.
“It is a mistake to believe that the proposed legislation will only limit environmental group’s ability to bring actions,” Thamer said. “I have litigated many claims against governmental agencies in state and federal courts over the past 30 years, including actions on behalf of the elderly, minors and the economically disadvantaged, and HR 1996 will significantly harm their ability to protect their rights in the future.”
Thamer added, “HR 1996 would gut equal access to justice, including access by our country’s elderly and veteran populations by greatly limiting their ability to retain legal counsel.”
Possible impact on veterans