For Immediate Release: June 27, 2013
Report Defends Equal Access to Justice Act
(Washington, DC) — A new Environmental Law Institute (ELI) report concludes there is no basis for rewriting the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). This long-standing law allows individuals, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to recover their attorney fees when they prevail in court against the federal government. EAJA is used to vindicate a variety of federal rights, including Veterans Affairs and Social Security Disability benefits as well as environmental protection.
The report counters recent calls to amend EAJA in ways that would exclude many important cases, particularly those seeking to ensure government compliance with environmental statutes. Together with the Administrative Procedure Act, EAJA promotes public oversight and involvement in laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act. EAJA attorney-fee awards are available to a broad array of organizations and individuals that meet the Act’s strict statutory requirements, including both industry and environmental organizations.
Citing budget concerns, a series of proposals in the House of Representatives have attempted to limit EAJA’s reach. Specifically, some bills have targeted public-interest groups’ access to federal court by seeking to restrict the class of parties eligible for EAJA attorney fees and to limit fee awards to a significantly below-market rate. These proposals, however, have not had the benefit of an in-depth examination of the history and application of EAJA over decades. The new ELI study fills that void.
ELI’s analysis examines the concerns offered by EAJA critics and finds them to be misplaced. According to ELI President John Cruden, “Proposed amendments to the Equal Access to Justice Act are a solution in search of a problem. Fee-shifting statutes like EAJA have a long bipartisan history, are a mainstay of federal litigation, and supplement the government’s efforts to protect the environment.”
The report, Shifting the Debate: In Defense of the Equal Access to Justice Act, describes how EAJA has in fact been cost-effective; how it applies only in meritorious litigation; and how existing legal safeguards and the independent discretion of federal judges will continue to ensure its prudent application. The Act allows fee awards only in cases where plaintiffs prevail in court and the government cannot convince the judge that its legal position was “substantially justified.”
ELI Senior Attorney Jay Austin, a co-author of the report, states “this study is an in-depth review of EAJA, including its application in a variety of lawsuits. Our finding is that EAJA is cost-effective, promotes citizen enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws, and advances access to justice for all parties to the litigation.”
Click here for the GAO report on EPA cases, providing some of the summary information that may prove useful for interviews.
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