August 27, 2012
No Fees, Costs for Common Benefit Litigant
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Ex Parte Bentley that the state constitution prohibited a common benefit litigant--one who successfully challenged the constitutionality of a permanent legislative committee--from collecting attorneys' fees and costs.
The case is the latest chapter in the McInnish litigation, involving a permanent state legislative committee designed to dole out community service grants. McInnish sued in the earlier case, arguing that the committee violated state constitutional separation of powers. McInnish claimed that the legislative committee, which received funds from a regular legislative appropriation, encroached on executive powers by deciding on particular grants to award and then awarding them.
The Alabama Supreme Court agreed. In McInnish v. Riley the court ruled that the legislative committee engaged in a quintessentially executive power by paying out the grants. It cited the state constitutional separation-of-powers provision, Section 43:
In the government of this state, except in the instances in this Constitution hereinafter expressly directed or permitted, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them; to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.
In Ex Parte Bentley, the court ruled that McInnish couldn't collect attorneys' fees and costs under the common benefit doctrine, based on the state sovereign immunity provision, Section 14:
That the State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity.
According to the court, this section bars any action if it seeks to recover damages or funds from the state treasury--even when a litigant sues for the common benefit.
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