The bipartisan Open Book on Equal Access to Justice Act passed the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 5 by a voice vote. This is a show of strong support for the bill, H.R. 2919, by Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Steve Cohen (D-TN).
“Lawsuits are still controversial and the disagreements still run deep on lawsuits in conservation, but we now have clear, bipartisan agreement that transparency is the first step toward solutions,” said Lowell Baier, president emeritus of the Boone and Crockett Club. “This bill ensures public disclosure of the facts: who files these lawsuits, why, and how much public money is spent on them.”
The bill was introduced jointly by four members of Congress—two Republican and two Democratic. Lummis and Cohen worked together on the bill for more than a year. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) joined as members of the House Judiciary Committee. Reps. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR) also cosponsor the bill and represent districts where litigation over environmental issues is highly controversial.
Many of the nation’s top wildlife, sporting and conservation organizations have joined with the Boone and Crockett Club to promote H.R. 2919.
“Lawsuits are a conservation issue because they have become so common. This means either that our conservation agencies are consistently wrong or something is wrong on the side of those challenging the agencies,” said Baier.
Reports from the Government Accounting Office show that little to no records can substantiate even the basic facts behind litigation. A report by the Inspector General of the Department of Interior found that litigation on the issue of endangered species is “driving nearly everything” in that arena.
“The Boone and Crockett Club supported the negotiations behind this bill and is rallying behind it because it’s about where conservation began and where it is going,” said Bill Demmer, president of the Boone and Crockett Club. “Our founders were Theodore Roosevelt and the other pioneers of conservation who created the agencies. Our mission today is carrying that legacy forward, which means we need to know why agencies are so often accused of wrongdoing.”
“Professional conservation began with the technical agencies set up to conserve land, water and wildlife,” said Bob Model, past-president and co-chair of the Conservation Policy Committee of the Club. “In recent years, lawsuits against those agencies have become a routine step in their decisions and actions. If there is something that badly wrong with how agencies do their jobs, we must fix it. If instead the lawsuits are the problem, we must fix that. To find out, we need the basic data provided by H.R. 2919 on why lawsuits are lost and how much they cost.”
H.R. 2919 amends the Equal Access to Justice Act by requiring an annual report and public online database of cases agencies were involved in and fees were reimbursed to plaintiffs, of the cases lost by the agencies. The database will provide a description of the claims in each case, the litigants that received reimbursement of legal fees and the amounts, and the basis for the ruling against the federal agency.
The bill also supports the interests of others who rely on the Equal Access to Justice Act, such as seniors, veterans and small businesses.