Republican Bill Slams Courthouse Door in the Face of the Poor
Washington, DC, November 17, 2011
Today at a markup held by the House Judiciary Committee, Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) opposed the passage of H.R. 1996, the “Government Litigation Savings Act.” The bill prohibits groups and individuals seeking to protect important rights and interests threatened by unreasonable government action from recovering attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). The EAJA allows a court to award attorney’s fees when a citizen, non-profit organization, or small business wins a case against the federal government in which the government’s actions are proved unjustifiable. The Alliance for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Consumer Law Center, Sierra Club, and over one hundred other consumer, environmental, civil rights, and civil liberties organizations oppose H.R. 1996 because the bill undermines the EAJA, making it more difficult for low income people and other parties that cannot obtain free legal counsel from securing quality legal representation in a wide range of cases.
“Contrary to the title of the bill, H.R. 1996 is a thinly disguised effort to prohibit litigation against the government by the needy and public interest groups,” said Conyers. “Under current law, the Equal Access to Justice Act enables the needy to recover attorneys fees, which makes it easier for them to obtain legal representation. Without the ability to recover fees, it is doubtful that many low income people, including seniors and veterans, will be able to secure legal representation.
“In addition, H.R.1996 also unnecessarily restrict eligibility for awards under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The EAJA already limits who is eligible for awards. For example, businesses with a net worth of $7 million or more are ineligible while individuals with a net worth of $2 million or more are also ineligible. However, H.R. 1996 contains new ill-conceived eligibility standards and prohibits some non-profit organizations from recovering awards under the Act.
“Specifically, H.R. 1996 requires the prevailing party to have a direct and personal interest in the action. Thus, public interest groups and others could be deterred from pursuing litigation that serves the public good because those actions may not provide a direct relief to these groups. For example, we could see fewer cases brought on behalf of individuals with physical disabilities as well as fewer suits to enforce federal laws that protect our health.
“Furthermore, I am concerned that this bill is purely aimed at restraining environmental groups and is an attack on those groups who have been awarded fees under the Act. Most, if not all, environmental groups are non-profit organizations. Many file lawsuits for injunctive relief to enforce laws and protect the public health. As a result of this bill, however, many of these organizations will be deterred from bringing such actions if they cannot recover full attorney’s fees.
“Finally, this bill eliminates the possibility of increased fees, which are particularly appropriate for complex and highly specialized adjudications involving environmental law. By eliminating the possibility of increased fees for specialization, this bill creates yet another hurdle that will make it more difficult to find competent legal representation to enforce complex environmental laws.”
Letter outlining public interest group opposition can be found here.