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Judging the Environment judicial nominations photo

A project tracking federal judicial nominations and courts.


What's At Stake: Fair Judges Overview

Environmental protection depends on the law and its enforcement to a greater degree than most other progressive causes. Federal judges often decide the fate of safeguards for clean air, clean water, endangered species, and special natural places. When agency officials allow corporations illegally to pollute the air we breathe, or when industry claims that clean water protections are unconstitutional, Americans rely on fair and independent judges to apply, enforce, and uphold the laws that protect people and our environment.

Our dependence on courts increases when we face hostile initiatives from the executive and legislative branches. The American people need federal court judges who will decide cases not on the basis of their own political views, but on a fair and reasonable interpretation of the law.

Federal Judges: Environmental Safeguards In The Balance

Federal trial and appellate court judges decide the fate of many long-standing environmental protections.

United States District Courts
Most federal cases begin and end in District (trial) Courts. Trial courts are where attorneys establish the facts of a case, so even if a case is appealed to a higher court, its life at the trial court level plays a key role. When appeals occur, they focus on addressing legal issues and correcting errors, not on reconstructing the facts. Trial court judges also have a great deal of discretion to interpret laws in a way that will determine the future of environmental protections-especially where legal guidelines are not well established.

United States Courts of Appeal
The 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal-the federal appellate courts-hear appeals from trial courts. Appeals courts can also hear direct challenges to many federal agency environmental decisions and regulations. Whether they are reviewing a decision from a trial court or one from an agency, Circuit Courts are the courts of last resort for the vast majority of federal cases. The Supreme Court refuses to hear over 99 percent of petitions to review lower court decisions. In fact, the Supreme Court has been shrinking its docket: recently it has been averaging only about 75 signed opinions in each annual term, compared with 107 in 1991-92 and 141 in 1982-83. Thus, the federal Courts of Appeal have become the final decision-makers on many critical, constitutional, statutory, and policy issues that will determine whether to roll back the clock or to uphold and enforce basic safety, health, and environmental safeguards.

United States Court of Federal Claims
Court of Federal Claims judges decide whether companies and developers must be paid to comply with federal safety, health, and environmental safeguards. Recent cases have included claims that "takings" of private property requiring payment have resulted from laws that prohibit pollution of streams and aquifers, limit destruction of wetlands, and safeguard against extermination of species. Balanced decisions ensure that unjustifiably broad definitions of "takings" do not chill vital safeguards, as the Court of Federal Claims and the Supreme Court have repeatedly recognized. (Click here for more information about Lawrence Block, a nominee to the Court of Federal Claims.)

United States Supreme Court
The Supreme Court interprets what federal laws and regulations mean, and is the ultimate judge of whether the Constitution authorizes or prohibits a range of local, state, and federal government activities. There have been no Court vacancies since 1994, the second-longest period in history. A retirement could drastically affect the balance of the Court; in the last term the Court issued a record percentage of 5-4 decisions (26 of 79).

What's At Stake
While US Supreme Court decisions are potentially definitive, federal trial and appellate judges are making the decisions on many critically important issues, including the following:

  • Whether people, individually and through citizen and environmental groups, will be allowed to go to court to enforce environmental and natural resource laws
  • Whether Congress has the constitutional authority to protect endangered species that live in only one state, to limit destruction of "isolated" wetlands, and to order companies to clean-up hazardous waste sites
  • Whether federal agencies have the statutory authority to protect people, property, and the environment under the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other landmark statutes
  • Whether to order that taxpayers must pay companies not to pollute or unfairly profit at the expense of neighboring people, private property, and the environment
  • Whether to enforce water pollution, wetlands, and other laws through meaningful fines and orders that deter future violations or to ignore sentencing guidelines in favor of a slap on the wrist that allows rogue companies to profit from violations of environmental laws

In each of these categories, there are federal judges with anti-environmental agendas who have attempted to roll back vital health and environmental protections by overturning or eviscerating the rights of average Americans.

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