Editorial: In civil
court, everybody should pay their own lawyers
LAST WEEK’S front page had
some happy news: The latest money grab by a lawyer for the
Sierra Club failed.
This is something that should happen a lot more often, not
only to protect taxpayers from having their pockets picked by
special interest groups, but also to keep frivolous lawsuits
from clogging up the courts, and to lessen the influence of
extremists in politics.
As things stand now, if a busybody in your neighborhood sues
the city council, the board of supervisors or any other local
government agency because he doesn’t like the decision it made
on a local issue — a building permit, a zoning change, or a
new ordinance on jaywalking — he can call on a host of highly
complex state laws that obligate local governments to adhere
to all sorts of Byzantine procedures and regulations before
they do anything. The rules apply to a wide variety of
decisions, from the trivial to the momentous, were enacted
without regard to concepts like “majority rule,” and come
loaded with ambiguous words such as “reasonable” and
“significant” that make it impossible for even the best
informed mayor or county supervisor to be certain what he is
supposed to do.
Thus, California law provides the embittered activists who take up all the public comment time at city council and board of supervisors meetings with plenty of opportunities to turn whatever their little obsessions may be into lawsuits.
And it offers them a high likelihood of winning those
lawsuits because, whatever a city or a county may do, there’s
a good chance a case (even if only a far-fetched one) can be
made that it violated at least one state law.
On top of all that, the California Legislature has provided a wonderful incentive for the activists to file these lawsuits, because when they win, which they usually do, even if only on trivial grounds, they can ask the court to order the taxpayers of the losing city or county to pay their legal fees, which usually amount to many hundreds of thousands of dollars. The justification for this insane system is that activists bring their lawsuits on behalf of the public and therefore shouldn’t have to pay for them — the taxpayers should.
The system of awarding legal fees to activists who file
successful lawsuits was put in place precisely to empower them
to thwart majority rule in favor of their narrow environmental
agenda, and it has worked to perfection. In fact, it has
worked so well that even Democrats are getting sick of it.
Even far-left politicians such as Gov. Jerry Brown have begun
calling for changes to the state’s lawsuit-laden system of
environmental protection laws.
So far, the governor has made only very limited
recommendations for reform. If he wants to get serious, he
should also change the system of forcing the public to pay
lawyers who sue the public.
In fact, in civil court, the rule should be simple: Win or
lose, everybody pays their own attorneys.