Friday, June 17, 2011

Donít handcuff the Davids in the nation

If most members of Idaho's congressional delegation had their way, they would rewrite the biblical story of David and Goliath at the urging of businesses that operate with leases on federal public land.

In their version of the story, David would be handcuffed and thus have to think twice about ever taking on a murderous behemoth. And even if, against all odds, David were to win the mismatch, Goliath would crush him when he falls.

The Davids of today are environmental groups that have successfully challenged the federal government in court—and won. They've been aided by a law passed during the Reagan administration called the Equal Access to Justice Act. It enables parties who carry out successful legal challenges of the federal government to recoup some of their costs.

The law was passed in a time when the GOP looked to the courts as allies in its quest to shrink the size of government. But the dream of smaller government by legal decree didn't work out the way the GOP hoped.

Indeed. In the West where farming, ranching, mining and timber were king, environmental groups began their own quest to balance public and business interests in public lands through the courts. The Equal Access law aided them by helping the environmental Davids fight government Goliaths. It gave them a chance not only to prevail, but to live to fight another day.

But Davids aren't always as popular as portrayed in stories, especially if they embarrass government officials by questioning their allegiance to the public interest and demonstrating in court that the government isn't living up to the laws intended to protect the nation's air, land, water and endangered species.

So, Idaho's business and ranching interests are joining with Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch to get out the handcuffs, the Government Litigation and Savings Act that would severely limit legal fees that may be recouped by a group that prevails against the federal government in court.

Simpson alleges that the Equal Access to Justice Act subsidizes the "litigious addictions" of special interest groups—even though those that do not prevail in court receive nothing.

Supporters of the act, like the new Western Legacy Alliance of ranchers and resource users, should be careful what they wish for. For as the political pendulum swings, they could find themselves in need of a tiny slingshot and the freedom to toss some legal ammunition if one day Goliath decides he has better friends.

No one should try to put in the fix on legal fights that keep government honest and in check and that empower citizens to seek justice.

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