A ‘Case Study’ in the Importance of the Courts
In recent weeks environmentalists have focused like laser beams on Capitol Hill, with the debate over climate legislation raging in the House and Senate. While it remains vitally important that Congress pass new legislation to protect our earth and all its inhabitants, we cannot forget that without strong enforcement of existing legislation and regulations from the Executive and Judicial branches, the laws on the books ultimately carry little weight. A recent visit to the Supreme Court reminded me once again of the central role of the courts in ensuring that we all have clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and green, open space to enjoy and be inspired by.
As Jessie mentioned in her OT08 wrap-up last week, this term will likely be seen as a shift to the right for the Supreme Court, especially in the area of environmental law. As the director of Georgetown’s Environmental Law and Policy Institute explains, “This term’s environmental decisions, taken as a whole, convey a message of extreme hostility to the goals and methods of environmental law.”
The Court overturned pro-environment decisions in five important cases this term, covering everything from pollution protections under the Clean Water Act to Superfund clean-up to marine mammal safety. It was a high-profile term for environmental law in the courts, with many cases decided by 5-4 margins, and a group of expert lawyers arguing before the Justices. The Court is expected to focus less on the environment in the fall, but will hear one important case on the Constitution’s takings clause regarding a state-owned Florida beach. Stay tuned for more on the implications of these cases and others.
However, the news coming out of the courts isn’t all bad; just last week, a California judge struck down a series of existing forest management regulations that were widely opposed by environmentalists for favoring timber company profits over natural resource health. The ruling maintains regulations that protect both habitat and wildlife under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Endangered Species Act, two of the cornerstones of national environmental policy since the 1970s. A lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity very simply called the decision a “great victory for national forests.”
And it’s not just Congress and courts that matter; in recent weeks the EPA reversed two previous decisions that endangered our climate and the health of dozens of communities around the country. On June 29, the Agency released new information on over 40 potentially toxic coal waste sites in 10 states, providing vital data for communities working to stay safe from environmental dangers. Just one day later, the EPA officially granted the state of California the right to regulate global warming pollution from cars. Though the second decision is largely a formality, since President Obama announced in May that he will pursue national vehicular emissions standards, the California case is a huge public marker and a decision that will begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions sooner than the new national regulations.
The judicial and administrative decisions on the environment during the month of June remind us that, while the importance of Congressional action shouldn’t be underestimated, the role of the Executive and Judicial branches in implementing and evaluating the law is just as important.