Colorado Attorney General Fights Against Personhood Claim for River

Published December 28, 2017

Colorado’s Attorney General’s office has asked a federal court to dismiss a “first-of-its-kind” claim filed by members of Deep Green Resistance (DGR), a self-described radical environmental group, requesting the court recognize the Colorado River ecosystem as a legal person with constitutional rights.

The lawsuit, Colorado River Ecosystem/Deep Green Resistance v. the State of Colorado, was filed on September 25, 2017 in the U.S. Federal District Court in Denver. It asks for recognition of the right of the river to “to exist, flourish, regenerate and naturally evolve.” In addition, the suit requests the court to designate members of Deep Green Resistance to “serve as guardians, or ‘next friends,’ for the Colorado River ecosystem,” allowing them to sue in court on behalf of the river.

Motion for Dismissal

The Colorado Attorney General’s office moved to have the suit dismissed.

“No environmental statute or other law authorizes the ecosystem to bring a suit on its own behalf,” said the state in its response.

Referring to prior case law, the Attorney General’s office also said, “there is no hint that ‘person’ includes inanimate objects, like the soil, water, and plants that, together with animals, create an ecosystem.”

In its complaint, DGR cited as precedent the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, arguing because “ordinary” corporations have “been repeatedly recognized as a ‘person’ for purposes of constitutional protection and enforcement,” the Colorado River deserves the same status and should be allowed to “hire a law firm, actively participate in its representation or testify in court.”

Clarifying Corporations’ Rights

Robert Natelson, a former constitutional law professor and senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says courts have never recognized legal rights for inanimate objects, and the rights the Supreme Court recognizes for corporations are the rights of individuals acting though a corporation.

“We allow individuals to exercise their rights in association,” Natelson said.

Although the law is clear on the matter, courts can be unpredictable, Natelson says.

“While it is unlikely they [Deep Green Resistance] will make much progress, there has been some real slippage in the rule of law in the United States,” Natelson said.

On its website and in its suit, DGR notes various countries and legal subdivisions have slowly begun to grant rights to natural objects or features.

“In 2008, the country of Ecuador adopted the first national constitution which recognized rights for ecosystems and nature; over three dozen U.S. municipalities, including the City of Pittsburgh, have adopted similar laws; and courts in India and Colombia have recently recognized that rivers, glaciers, and other ecosystems may be treated as ‘persons’ under those legal systems,” DGR stated in its court filing.

Natelson says granting constitutional rights to inanimate objects would tilt the playing field. “Humans would be unfairly disadvantaged in arguing against the claims made by the ‘next friend’ of the river on its behalf,” Natelson said. “Who represents the river ecosystem?”

Calls for Legislative Action

Natelson says Congress and state legislatures have the authority to end lawsuits of this sort and should do so.

“Congress and state legislatures could alter ‘standing’ rules to limit who can bring suits before the court or to limit the jurisdiction of the courts,” Natelson said.

U.S. District Court Judge Nina Wang scheduled a December hearing on Colorado’s motion to dismiss.

Even if Wang dismisses the suit, DGR is unlikely to give up. The group’s “Statement of Principles” says its mission is to create “a resistance movement that will dismantle industrial civilization by any means necessary.”

Joe Barnett ([email protected]) writes from Arlington, Texas.