Congress is considering a controversial bill that would require people who sue the government to take their cases to the U.S. district court in the part of the country most affected by the case, rather than the district court in Washington.
Environmental and consumer groups vigorously oppose the bill because they say it is unnecessary and would make it much more expensive for them to file lawsuits.
The bill's supporters claim it will "return justice to the people" by giving local federal judges the opportunity to make decisions in cases that affect their jurisdictions.
The district court in Washington generally has been considered to be more liberal than many of the U.S. courts around the country. However, Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition that opposes the bill, said, "I don't think the D.C. court is that liberal. It's the luck of the draw in the District--there are liberals and conservatives. . . . "
The bill, which was introduced by Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), would amend current venue law by requiring that courts transfer all lawsuits against the government (except those involving civil rights) to the district in which "the action would have a substantially greater impact."
For example, the Defenders of Wildlife sued the Interior Department in 1978 because it allowed recreational boating on a national wildlife refuge in Nevada called Ruby Lake. The wildlife group said it filed its lawsuit in the district court here because the department is based here. Eventually, judges here ordered a ban on boating on the lake 2,000 miles away--a decision that outraged local citizens.
Under the DeConcini-Laxalt bill, which was prompted by the Ruby Lake case, the lawsuit automatically would have been transferred to the district court for Nevada.
"Special interest groups that have made Washington, D.C., the center for their operations will not be pleased at the thought of having to go to those parts of the country where the results of their litigation will have a great impact, but I believe it will be educational for them to realize the great plurality of feelings that exists west of the Potomac," DeConcini said. He said his bill will dissolve the power of judges in Washington to intrude upon the lives of Americans miles away from their courts.
Several venue bills have been introduced since the Ruby Lake case, but none has come before both chambers. Consumer groups, however, are worried that the DeConcini-Laxalt bill may stand a good chance of passing because of the mood in Congress to transfer authority away from Washington. Hearings on the bill will be held today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The costs of filing litigation would rise dramatically for no good legal purpose under this bill," said Ron Way, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation. "All the experts are here. This is where national policy is set. There is no reason to move."
Way said travel expenses could break many public interest groups. "As a result, we would not be filing as many lawsuits," he said. "I don't think justice is served by preventing access to the courts."
Leaving Washington to defend lawsuits also would be more expensive for the government, Aron said.
"Federal judges, no matter where they sit, should interpret the law based upon the legal merits of a case, not on a geographic basis," Way said. "So there is no sound legal reason to move cases."
Aron contends the bill is unclear and could cause havoc in federal courts as judges tried to decide where they should send cases. She said current venue laws, which generally allow judges to make venue changes, are sufficient.