NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Courts Clamping Down on Private Environmental Lawsuits

June 14, 1999

Twenty-five years ago, Congress gave citizens broad powers to bring lawsuits against polluters. Now, observers say, judges across the country are cutting back on the suits.

  • Rulings by the Supreme Court and federal courts have sharply limited the circumstances under which citizens and their environmental organizations can sue to punish violators of anti-pollution laws.
  • An increasing number of judges have been finding constitutional problems with the private claims.
  • Although the trend has gone largely unnoticed by the public, environmental activists say it represents a profound setback for their movement.
  • Businesses say such suits have given environmentalists the power to harass industry with the threat of large penalties for highly technical violations in which the plaintiff has no stake.

While neither the Supreme Court nor lower federal courts have invalidated the laws governing citizens' suits, they have gradually raised the standard that the suits must clear -- most often by citing the constitutional requirement that the courts must resolve only those suits involving "cases" and "controversies."

Source: William Glaberson, "Novel Antipollution Tool Is Being Upset by Courts," New York Times, June 5, 1999.


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