environmental law, attorney's fees, environmental interest litigants, award of fees


The Wilderness Society and other interested groups brought suit in the district court, seeking to enjoin construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline on the grounds that: (1) the right of way granted the defendant violated the width restrictions of Section 28 of the Mineral Lands Leasing Act of 1920 and (2) the environmental impact statement required under Section 4321 of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was inadequate. The district court, after granting a preliminary injunction, reversed itself by dissolving the preliminary injunction and denying permanent relief. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed, holding that the Secretary of the Interior lacked the power to grant permits to projects which violated provisions of the Mineral Lands Leasing Act. The merits of the action were effectively mooted by Congress, which passed legislation authorizing the pipeline project as it stood. Shortly thereafter, plaintiffs moved in the court of appeals for an award of attorneys' fees. The motion was granted, and fees were awarded against defendant Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. In granting the motion, the appellate court implemented the ''private attorney general exception" to the so-called American rule, which normally protects a party to litigation from liability for his opponent's attorneys' fees. This exception springs from the rationale that, in certain instances, a private plaintiff's suit may become a vehicle for the vindication of a public right. After finding the award of attorneys' fees to be justified, the court ordered Alyeska to pay one-half of the total fees awarded, but no fees were ordered to be paid by either the United States government or the state of Alaska. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, holding that adoption of any exception to the American rule was beyond the power of the courts, and that only the legislature could alter the substantive law in this manner. The decision curbs what has been an expanding tendency of federal courts to award attorneys' fees to victorious plaintiffs in a variety of situations. Prior to Alyeska this tendency had elicited much judicial and scholarly support.



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