Montana, Rep. Greg Gianforte (mugshot from reporter assault case above) chaired a hearing Thursday in a U.S. House subcommittee seeking suggestions on ways to modify the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). At the Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment hearing, Gianforte called environmental groups “extremists” and accused them of stifling “responsible use of natural resources” and said “wealthy environmental organizations” were taking advantage of the law’s loopholes, amounting to an “abuse” of taxpayer dollars.
This article includes some helpful perspectives on the law. Here’s a summary of testimony by a law professor:
Sara Colangelo, a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, urged the congressman to seek more information from government agencies on EAJA cases. Better data tracking would provide the public a clearer picture of what is actually going on, she said.
“When we see the data in front of us, we’ll come up with better changes,” Colangelo said.
In fact, the 2012 GAO report noted then that data collection by agencies was either hard to find or nonexistent.
“As a result, there was no way to readily determine who made claims, the total amount each department paid or awarded in attorney fees, who received the payments, or the statutes under which the cases were brought,” the report said.
Colangelo also said she sees little evidence that environmental groups would consider EAJA payments when deciding whether to contest a project. In other words, the EAJA payments don’t invite litigation, she said.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, noted in her opening statement as ranking member that the Equal Access to Justice Act is important to U.S. citizens seeking to hold government agencies accountable for actions or inaction. Ninety-eight percent of EAJA fees go to veterans fighting for disability and for Social Security cases, she said.
Based on the 2011 GAO report, Plaskett said most of the lawsuits seeking EAJA funds were filed by trade groups, not environmentalists, a fact Colangelo also made saying that attorney fee awards to environmental groups were a “miniscule” part of Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management budgets.
So any legislation would appear to have little benefit, and would have to target the real “extremists” (and who gets to decide who those are?). (Searching this site for EAJA will turn up several prior discussions of this topic.)