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Alaska Conservation Foundation v. Pebble Ltd. Partnership

ELR Citation: 45 ELR 20105
Nos. 7012, (Alaska, 05/29/2015)

The Supreme Court of Alaska reversed a lower court decision that plaintiffs challenging land and water use permits allowing intensive mineral exploration in Alaska's prospective Pebble Mine had "sufficient economic incentive" to warrant the imposition of attorney fees against them. The plaintiffs have since become the prevailing parties. Nevertheless, the court chose not to dismiss the original applications for relief and petition for review as moot, only to have them refiled as a result of further attorney fees proceedings in the lower court. The court, therefore, went on to determine whether the plaintiffs had a "sufficient economic incentive." The applicable statute provides that a successful claimant generally is entitled to an award of full reasonable attorney fees and costs incurred in connection with a constitutional claim, unless the claimant had sufficient economic incentive to bring the claim regardless of its constitutional nature. Likewise, the statute protects an unsuccessful claimant from an adverse attorney fees award if the constitutional claim was not frivolous and the claimant did not have sufficient economic incentive to bring the claim regardless of its constitutional nature. Here, the nature of the plaintiffs' claim and the equitable relief requested indicate that their primary purpose was securing changes to and increasing notice and public involvement in the state's mineral exploration permitting process. Neither they nor any opponents of the Pebble Mine, even if they helped fund this litigation, had a direct economic interest in the outcome. The indirect economic interests possibly at stake and the plaintiffs' interests in protecting subsistence uses are not enough to demonstrate "sufficient economic incentive" under the state's attorney fees statute.