Congressmen appeal to Supreme Court on AHRI

Published March 1, 2000

Four western Congressmen have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether members of Congress can sue the Clinton-Gore Administration for violating the Constitution. The petition to review was filed on December 2.

Responding to a lawsuit first filed in December 1997, a federal district court and a federal court of appeals have ruled that members of Congress have no legal standing to sue the President for violating the Constitution. Representatives Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), Bob Schaffer (R-Colorado), Richard W. Pombo (R-California), and Don Young (R-Alaska) have petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the lower courts’ rulings.

The Congressmen are being represented by attorneys with the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), a nonprofit public interest legal center.

The constitutional battle began in early 1997, when the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) put a notice in the Federal Register announcing plans to create the American Heritage Rivers Initiative (AHRI) by Presidential proclamation. The initiative would allow rivers to be designated for “natural, historic, cultural, social, economic, and ecological diversity.” The administration initially allowed just 20 days for public comment, but opposition in Congress and from citizens across the country extended the deadline an additional 60 days.

The House Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on July 15, 1997. Katy McGinty, head of CEQ, testified but refused to commit to a proposed provision that would allow private landowners to opt out of an AHRI designation. She also rejected a proposed provision prohibiting federal employees of the program from intervening in local zoning.

On September 11, 1997 President Clinton signed an executive order launching the AHRI.

Three months later, on December 10, the four congressmen filed a lawsuit alleging “AHRI violates the commerce clause of the Constitution whereby only the Congress has the authority to regulate interstate commerce,” according to Schaffer. He added, “additionally, the AHRI violates the 10th Amendment, which guarantees state sovereignty, and the property clause, which protects private property from seizure without compensation. The initiative also fails to conform to the procedural protections of the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA).”

Co-plaintiff Chenoweth-Hage added, “President Clinton seeks to do with this program what he has absolutely no authority to do: Place federal officials in charge of the economic and ecological future of the nation’s rivers. In testimony before a hearing I chaired, the total absence of any Presidential authority to place American rivers under federal control was clear, yet the White House presses on, saying, essentially, ‘Sue us.’ So we have.”

In May 1998, the Colorado General Assembly adopted a resolution requesting “that no rivers in Colorado be designated as Heritage Rivers under the AHRI, and [we further] hereby request the Congress of the United States to withhold funding for the implementation of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative.”

Many affected associations nationwide, including the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, and the Colorado Farm Bureau, joined the Congressmen in expressing their opposition to the AHRI. Ray Christensen, public affairs director for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said, “Colorado is already having so many problems with the Endangered Species Act, and wild and scenic rivers program. Why on earth would we want to create another federal program like this, especially when it does not address property rights protection?”

William Perry Pendley, president and chief legal officer for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, agrees. The case “presents a vitally important matter of public policy,” he says. “Who may sue to stop a President who violates the Constitution?”

For more information

on the case, Chenoweth et al. vs. Clinton et al., visit the Mountain States Legal Foundation’s Web site at