Posted by Walter Olson
It’s all a happy circle of funding, as John Merline reports at Investor’s Business Daily: the Environmental Protection Agency gives millions in grants to green organizations that perennially sue it demanding that it regulate more things. When the EPA settles or loses those suits, it then awards the groups millions more in attorneys’ fees under the federal Equal Access to Justice Act and other “one-way” attorney’s fee provisions (called “one-way” because they allow winning plaintiffs to collect fees from defendants, but not vice versa).
“The EPA isn’t harmed by these suits,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, who was an EPA official during the Bush administration. “Often the suits involve things the EPA wants to do anyway. By inviting a lawsuit and then signing a consent decree, the agency gets legal cover from political heat.”
Holmstead called this kind of litigation “sweetheart suits.”
As blogger Coyote puts it, “Our rulers are pretty good at finding tricky ways to expand their power.”
I go into much more detail on collusive public-sector litigation in chapter 8 of my new book Schools for Misrule. Other government agencies, much like the EPA, use settlements of pressure-group lawsuits as a way to go along with desired expansions of power; corrections and foster-care systems commit to step up program offerings and (no! anything but that!) seek higher funding to accomplish their missions; union-allied public-sector managers give away the store on employee benefits disputes, and so forth (scroll to “Consent of the Governors”). From New York to Alabama, state education departments have covertly or even openly assisted lawsuits against themselves intended to force spending expansion. And once sweetheart negotiations result in an adverse consent decree, with little or no formal input from taxpayers, parents, or other affected constituencies, the locked-in big-government policies can be nearly impossible to unlock later on, should voters’ moods change.
With a few exceptions, as with Prof. Ross Sandler and David Schoenbrod’s superb critique Democracy by Decree, these methods of agency governance are virtually uncontroversial and indeed highly popular in legal academia — and no wonder, since they transfer much power over public policy to a corps of “public-interest” litigation professionals who tend to be products of the finer law schools. But others, particularly Western land activists and Republicans in Congress, are skeptical. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) points out that since a rules revamp in 1995 the federal government no longer even tracks EAJA fee payouts in any organized manner, which makes it harder to catch double payments as well as suggestive patterns in which (critics have charged) certain environmental groups have filed hundreds of suits, assembly-line style, and cashed them in for fees. Lummis and home-state colleague Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) have introduced a bill called the Government Litigation Savings Act that would, among other provisions, reinstitute data collection regarding EAJA outlays, limit the size of awards to $200,000 per case and the number of annual awards to a given group to three, and cap hourly attorneys’ fee awards at an inflation-indexed $175/hour. (Sen. Orrin Hatch, another co-sponsor, summarizes the provisions here.) Whatever the merits of individual details, the bill furnishes a jumping-off point for a public debate that’s long overdue.