Earthjustice Report Says Trump, Congress Stymieing Court Access

WASHINGTON (CN) – A new report from Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental law organization, claims that since taking office in January 2017, the Trump administration and Congress have taken deliberate steps to limit or eliminate access to the nation’s courts.

The report, “Access to Justice,” points to the introduction of more than 50 bills and the adoption of a number of administrative policies that Earthjustice and its contributing authors — the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Citizen, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — contend have weakened plaintiffs’ ability to fight corporate corruption, defend civil liberties and safeguard environment protections.

Among those called out by name is the report is outgoing Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a staunch conservative, who sponsored, among other bills, the Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act of 2017.

The bill aimed to cut off the payment of civil suit awarded to third parties.

“Congress must not tolerate Justice Department political appointees using settlements to funnel money to their liberal friends,” wrote Goodlatte in a statement shortly after the bill was introduced in January 2017.

Goodlatte said the bill would curb “a billion dollars to activist groups” that he said the Justice Department had donated via settlements.

These payments, the congressman said, come from federal coffers but are dictated by judges and not Congress.
“Once direct victims have been compensated, deciding what to do with additional funds recovered from defendants becomes a policy question properly decided by elected representatives in Congress, not agency bureaucrats or prosecutors,” he said.

But Earthjustice said in its report that the bill “handcuffs federal enforcement officials” and denies access to funds to groups who need them to continue their work.

The report points to BP’s settlement of litigation after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, a settlement in which hundreds of millions of dollars were directed to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Neither organization was part of the legal case, but both conduct research on oil spill recovery and natural resource restoration.

“These nonprofits spent the money on oil spill prevention and natural resource restoration projects that benefitted the hardest hit coastal and fishing communities,” Earthjustice said.

“[The Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act of 2017] would prohibit settlement payments to organizations that help injured communities recover.”

The report also focused on another piece of legislation sponsored by Goodlatte, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act, which passed the House in March, 2017.

According to a statement on Goodlatte’s website, this bill is intended to maximize payouts for deserving plaintiffs and “weed out unmeritorious claims that would otherwise siphon resources away from innocent parties.”

The bill requires members of class action lawsuits to have the same “type and scope of injury.”

“[The Class Action Litigation Act] will keep baseless class action suits away from innocent parties, while still keeping the doors to justice open for parties with real and legitimate claims, and maximizing their recoveries,” Goodlatte said in the statement.

But Earthjustice again questioned the true intent of the bill and called the name of the legislation itself misleading.

According the report, and a statement released by the American Bar Association after the bill was announced, distinguishing between injured and uninjured parties is “a nearly insurmountable burden for people who have suffered personal injury or economic loss at the hands of large institutions with vast resources, effectively barring them from bringing class actions.”

Earthjustice also expressed concern with what it sees as a deliberate effort to reduce judicial review which could lead to a weakening of the country’s checks and balances system by siphoning power from judges.

Among the offenders in this department was 2017’s Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, a bill  authored by Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins.

“Our federal agencies are out of control,” Collins said in a statement on his website announcing the legislation.

The measure would require both houses of Congress to approve rules made by federal agencies if they have an economic impact.

“[Congress has] ceded our legislative responsibility to agencies that were never intended to make laws, and the result has been redundant, counterproductive rules that have massive impacts on our economy,” Collins wrote.

Earthjustice said in its report that the bill would create a process for Congress to kill any rule it doesn’t like merely by not voting to on it.

“By simply doing nothing, even one chamber of Congress could effectively veto implementation of existing laws,” the report said. “This represents, in effect, a preemptive disapproval of all significant regulatory actions by all federal agencies.”

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