Skip Navigation
Judging the Environment judicial nominations photo
 

A project tracking federal judicial nominations and courts.


Defenders of Wildlife

Issue

Access to Courts

Congress has repeatedly included "citizen suit" and private attorney general provisions in a wide range of laws to ensure that essential environmental, civil rights, consumer, health, worker, property, and other legal safeguards are upheld and enforced. The Supreme Court unanimously held that a citizen who obtains relief “does so not for himself alone, but also as a ‘private attorney general,’ vindicating a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority. If successful plaintiffs were routinely forced to bear their own attorneys' fees, few aggrieved parties would be in a position to advance the public interest by invoking the injunctive powers of the federal courts.”

In upholding the ability of individuals and organizations to sue polluters, the Supreme Court recognized that: "Congress has found that civil penalties in Clean Water Act cases do more than promote immediate compliance . . . they also deter future violations." Courts have described how “extensive legislative history” establishes “that Congress intended citizen suits to both goad the responsible agencies to more vigorous enforcement of the anti-pollution standards and, if the agencies remained inert, to provide an alternate enforcement mechanism.” See

CONGRESS, PRESIDENT REAGAN, COURTS AND EDITORIAL BOARDS AGREE: CITIZEN ACCESS TO COURT IS NEEDED TO ENFORCE ENVIRONMENTAL AND OTHER SAFEGUARDS (, 02/13/15)

Shifting the Debate: In Defense of the Equal Access to Justice Act, by Brian Korpics, Jay Austin, and Bruce Myers, Environmental Law Institute, Nov. 2013; and

Citizen Suits at Thirtysomething:  A Celebration and Summit, Widener Law Review’s Symposium

Sue and Settle: Demonizing the Environmental Citizen Suit, Seattle University Law Review, Vol. 37, No. 891, 2014 by Stephen M. Johnson, Mercer University Law School

President Reagan stated: “I am pleased to be able to approve H.R. 2378, a bill to extend the Equal Access to Justice Act. I support this important program that helps small businesses and individual citizens right faulty government actions by paying attorneys' fees in court cases or adversarial agency proceedings where the small business or individual citizen has prevailed and where the government action or position in the litigation was not substantially justified."

A nonpartisan Congressional Research Service Report lists “roughly two hundred statutory [attorney fee provisions], which were generally enacted to encourage private litigation to implement public policy. Awards of attorneys’ fees are often designed to help to equalize contests between private individual plaintiffs and corporate or governmental defendants. Thus, attorneys’ fees provisions are most often found in civil rights, environmental protection, and consumer protection statutes. In addition, the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) makes the United States liable for attorneys’ fees of up to $125 per hour in many court cases and administrative proceedings that it loses (and some that it wins) and fails to prove that its position was substantially justified.”

gavel icon See all letters of opposition or concern for this issue

gavel icon See all reports and analysis for this issue

gavel icon See all senators' statements for this issue

gavel icon See all press releases about this issue

gavel icon See all news stories about this issue

gavel icon See all editorials and commentary about this issue