Litigation And Environmental Policy

The courts have been an important forum for developing environmental policy because they allow citizens to challenge complex environmental laws and to affect the decision-making process. Both supporters and opponents of environmental protection have successfully used the courts to change environmental policy and law. Successful challenges can force the legislature to change laws or even have the law suspended as unconstitutional. A lawsuit can also be filed to seek compensation for harm to a person, property, or an economic interest. Sometimes, lawsuits have prompted the creation of entirely new laws such as the federal Superfund Law (1980) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976). Even the threat of a lawsuit, given the bad publicity it can bring, is sometimes enough to get a business or the government to change its behavior.

There are many different situations under which an individual or organization can go to court over environmental laws and regulations. One common occurrence is for an individual or group to sue the government in order to block a law or regulation from going into effect. For example, when the government halted logging in northwestern forests because of threats to endangered owls, logging companies fought to halt enforcement of those protections because that would decrease the industry's income and cause the loss of jobs.

Some lawsuits are filed not to block an environmental law or regulation from going into effect but because the claimants feel that the government owes them compensation for the negative effects of the law. In 1986 David Lucas bought two residential lots on a South Carolina barrier island. He planned to build houses on these lots, just as had been done on other nearby lots. At the time he bought the land this was entirely legal, but in 1988 South Carolina passed the Beachfront Management Act. Designed to protect the state's beaches from erosion, it prohibited new construction on land in danger of eroding, which included the land Lucas owned.

Lucas went to court claiming that the Beachfront Management Act had violated the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by preventing him from building on his property. The Fifth Amendment states, among other things, that no person's "private property shall be taken for public use, without just compensation.'' Lucas argued that preventing him from building on his property was equivalent to taking it, so the government of South Carolina had to compensate him for it. On June 29, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (505 US 1003), agreed with Lucas in a 7-2 decision, and South Carolina was ordered to compensate him.

Supporters of environmental protection also have filed lawsuits. These situations generally occur when people feel the government is not properly enforcing the law. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have sued the government on many occasions to compel it to officially recognize certain species as endangered.

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