Enviros Sue and the Feds Pay

I’m a day late. Yesterday, Fox carried a story about the Equal Access to Justice Act, and the concern that enviros are abusing the law by collecting outrageous attorneys’ fees when litigating the feds. Here’s the lede:

Deep-pocketed environmental groups are collecting millions of dollars from the  federal agencies they regularly sue under a little-known federal law, and the  government is not even keeping track of the payouts, according to two new  studies.

The Equal Access to Justice Act is a Carter era relic that was intended to help the little guy – the small business owner or farmer – challenge the federal behemoth when they believe that they had been stomped on by some discretion-exercising bureaucrat. Like many well-intentioned laws, the Equal Access to Justice Act quicly spun out of control.

The exact taxpayer cost of the Equal Access to Justice Act remains unclear.  The General Accounting Office, or GAO, tracked 525 legal fee reimbursements  that totaled $44.4 million from 2001 through 2010, but found that only 10 of 75  agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior  could provide data on cases and attorney fee reimbursements.

I did read the GAO study. Nothing in it is surprising. That the government cannot track its spending habits or litigation records is par for the course.

I happen to know that the Forest Service in particular is heavily litigated, and frequently loses cases to environmental groups. Often, they deserve to lose these cases: the Forest Service represents the government, and the whole suite of federal environmental law is under their purview. The fact that the they frequently fail to accurately and legally interpret and/or implement these unbelievably complicated and conflicting laws speaks more to the nature of public policy in this country than it does the professionalism or competence of Forest Service personnel. Unfortunately, the mess that we have made of our environmental laws does not excuse the Forest Service from their obligations under federal law. To say though that it’s the environmental groups who are wrecking the system, particularly when the charge comes from a member of congress, misses the mark by a wide margin.

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