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Bill to block Supreme Court rule on attorney fees heads to governor’s desk

The Idaho Statehouse. File photo.

The Idaho Statehouse. File photo.

The Idaho Senate approved a bill Feb. 24 to block changes made in the Idaho Supreme Court to how attorney fees are awarded in civil cases. The bill now goes before the governor for his signature.

The Senate voted unanimously after hearing from lawyers that a Supreme Court decision in September would disrupt what has been standard practice for nearly 40 years.

Since 1979, attorney fees have been awarded to the winning party in civil cases only when a judge deemed that the case brought against them was frivolous or unwarranted. The Supreme Court changed that rule in September in a decision that would give judges more leeway in deciding when to award attorney fees. Judges will be able to award attorney fees whenever “justice may require,” unless the bill to block the rule change is signed by the governor before March 1.

“It would take us some time to discern what this new rule really means,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise and owner of his own legal practice. “There are many people who don’t feel it is practical to spend the next 10 to 15 years trying to figure out what this change really means.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne

Sen. Grant Burgoyne

Changing the rule now would undermine dozens of court cases that provide precedent and inform lawyers on how to advise their clients through a civil suit, Ken McClure, of the Idaho Liability Reform Coalition, told representatives before the House passed the bill earlier in February.

“The Supreme Court rule has been something all parties have lived with for the past 38 years and it has worked well,” McClure said. “It provides a system which is predictable and known.”

No lawyers have come out against the bill to block the rule change, said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge

Many lawyers worry the new rule is too broad and that saying attorney fees can be awarded “in pursuit of justice” is equivalent to saying that fees can be awarded whenever, said Mike Krane, of Property and Casualty Insurance Association of America.

“Everyone I have talked to believes the certainty of the old rule is important,” Burgoyne said.

 

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.