Judicial update

Published April 1, 2000

Citizens’ right to sue upheld

On January 12, 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that citizens do have the right to sue alleged polluters under the Clean Water Act.

In a 7-2 decision in Friends of the Earth vs. Laidlaw Environmental Services, the Court found that citizen groups have “standing” and may sue even though any fines paid by a defendant would go not to the citizen group-plaintiffs, but to the U.S. Treasury. Business groups had argued that only government agencies should enforce the law.

They also argued that the case was moot, since Laidlaw Environmental Services, a South Carolina company that operated a hazardous waste incinerator, had installed new equipment and corrected problems that had contributed to the original violations of mercury discharges. The “mootness” argument was upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. The Laidlaw plant in question was closed while the case was on appeal.

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed on the “mootness” issue, finding “Both Laidlaw’s permit compliance and the facility closure might moot this case, but only if one or the other event made it absolutely clear that violations could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

Status: Remanded to District Court

Conspiracy to control seed trade alleged

Five farmers in Indiana and Iowa and one in France are identified as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on behalf of all farmers who have used biotech seeds. Jeremy Rifkin, a left-leaning environmental activist, recruited nine law firms to handle the case. Rifkin accuses Monsanto and other seed companies of fixing prices and forcing farmers to use genetically engineered seed.

Major farm organizations disagree. They say farmers like the products or they wouldn’t be using them. Notes Monsanto, “This technology has been tested for many years and it’s subject to intense regulation.”

Status: Pending in District Court

Decision on EPA smog rules appealed

The Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision that EPA had exceeded its authority in 1997 when it implemented new smog and soot rules. Four states–Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont–have filed “friends of the court” briefs, and the American Lung Association has filed a petition to appear as a plaintiff on EPA’s behalf. Defendants before the Supreme Court are 104 companies and individuals, including Virginia Representative Tom Bliley and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, both Republicans.

Status: Appealed to U.S. Supreme Court

President’s roadless initiative challenged

As reported by Environment & Climate News, Idaho’s Attorney General has sued the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in an effort to stop the USFS from implementing its “roadless” program, putting more than 40 million acres of National Forest land off limits to logging, mining, and off-road vehicle use. Now Montana’s Governor Marc Racicot has joined Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne in asking a federal court for an injunction to block implementation of the roadless plan until the USFS gives the states more information about which forests would be affected. Until then, the states claim their citizens cannot make informed decisions on the plan.

Status: Pending before Ninth District Court

Michigan family’s property rights upheld

A federal district court in Michigan agreed with Kathy Stupak-Thrall that the U.S. Forest Service had overstepped its authority by restricting her use of a motorboat on a lake that adjoins the Sylvania Wilderness Area. The court also ruled that if the regulation were allowed to stand, it would result in a “taking” and Stupak-Thrall would be entitled to just compensation.

The problem began when Congress created the Sylvania Wilderness Area, which abuts Crooked Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Part of the lake is also bordered by private land. State law gives property owners with riparian property (property bordering on water) the right to use the body of water so long as their use doesn’t impair the rights of others. The Forest Service claimed Stupak-Thrall’s motorboat disturbed the “character” of the wilderness area.

Status: appealed by federal government to Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Deep ecology suit rejected

A group of loggers in Minnesota filed a lawsuit last fall claiming the U.S. Forest Service had violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by favoring a religion, “deep ecology.” They argued that “deep ecology” is a religion because it views the Earth as sacred; by limiting logging in national forests, the loggers contended, the Forest Service was favoring one religion.

The lawsuit asked the judge to stop the Service from limiting logging in National Forests and to pay $600,000 in lost timber business. The judge dismissed the suit outright, saying it had no merit.

Status: case closed

Yellowstone wolves roam free

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to overturn a lower court’s ruling and allow the wolf reintroduction program to continue. The lower court had ruled in 1997 that the reintroduction violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because it endangered naturally occurring wolves in the area.

Ranchers, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and some environmental groups were opposed to the reintroduction of the wolves. The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund argued the case on behalf of several environmental groups.

Status: American Farm Bureau is considering appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but had not done so at press time

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument challenged

The Mountain States Legal Foundation is challenging in U.S. District Court the authority of President Clinton to designate 1.7 million acres in Utah as federal land. The Utah Association of Counties has joined the suit. The administration has asked that the case be dismissed since Congress took no action to change the proclamation.

The federal judge hearing the case said, “If the court were to find congressional ratification . . . in the present case it could quite possibly be the final act in a drama . . . in which not one branch of government operated within its constitutional authority. It could be, in effect, an unintentional conspiracy of the three branches of government to do something none of them actually legally did, and thereby rob the people of their voice.”

Status: Discovery continues at the U.S. District Court in Utah

USDA cannot reveal farmers’ information

The American Farm Bureau Federation recently won an injunction that prevents the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Wildlife Services Division from revealing personal, confidential information to private groups.

The Animal Protection Institute, an animal rights group, has requested private information about farmers and ranchers who participate in predatory pest control programs to protect their livestock and crops. The Forest Guardians (FG) had filed a case against the USDA seeking an entire database for wildlife services programs in all states west of the Mississippi, except for Oklahoma. Farm Bureau discovered the USDA was ready to settle the case by turning over the documents; Farm Bureau sought and was granted a temporary restraining order later converted to a preliminary injunction.

Status: Case will proceed in U.S. District Court in Waco, Texas