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Legal fee debacle deserves a clear public accounting


Editorial



The Equal Access to Justice Act allows certain prevailing parties in lawsuits against the federal government to collect reasonable legal fees if they can show the government's position in the underlying lawsuit was unjustified.



Because the federal government has thousands of salaried lawyers on its payroll and other resources to bring to bear, suing the federal government is expensive and far beyond the reach of plaintiffs of modest means. The law is meant to level the playing field by forcing the government to foot the bill if even part of its position is judged to be wrong.



This can be particularly important when a third party brings a suit in the public interest and has not suffered some actual monetary damage.



Enter environmental groups that sue various federal agencies either challenging specific decisions, such as the approval of a timber sale, or pressing that an agency comply with some statutory requirement, such as responding to a petition within the prescribed time limit.



A group making a claim on fees doesn't have to win its lawsuit to collect. It just has to prove that it prevailed on one or more points.



Critics claim -- with some justification, in our opinion -- that the environmental groups file dozens of suits pressing statutory requirements they know the agencies can't meet in order to collect fees that can fund other lawsuits. They also point out that while the law doesn't allow individuals or corporations with net worths over $7 million to collect the fees, all nonprofit agencies are eligible no matter how much cash they have on hand.



While we take exception to the practice, the payments are approved by a federal judge. The real problem is that no one can account for how much the government pays in such claims each year, or specifically who is collecting the fees.



At present, the only way to find out who has been paid what is to pore over court orders in individual cases.



Livestock groups are pressing Congress to require a public accounting of money paid to litigants. We think that's a great idea.



Whether the government is handing over fees to an environmental group or an aggrieved farmer, the rest of us taxpayers ought to be able to easily inspect the transaction and keep a total of the spoils.



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