By Heather B. Navarro, Executive Director
Missouri Coalition for the Environment
I’ll See You In Court!
In eighth grade I heard Robert Kennedy, Jr. speak about a law clinic he started to fight polluters. By that time in my life I knew I was an environmentalist. In junior high I was organizing recycling drives and telling anyone who would listen about global warming and chlorofluorocarbons. Until I heard Robert Kennedy, Jr., I didn’t know how I could turn this passion into a career.
Once through law school I worked in private practice for a few years before moving to the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE). I witnessed first hand how the law can change lives in both the short-term and the long-term. When politics fails, a court, or a judge, can hold government accountable. A lawsuit can hit a corporation’s bottom line in such a way that it compels change in ways that other pressure can’t.
I often hear from people and funders that using legal action to address environmental threats is too “adversarial” and they don’t want to be perceived as “litigious.” The stories of “out-of-control torts” often dominate what people think of when they think of litigation. However, our system requires all three branches of government to work.
When government doesn’t work, we can take to the streets and march in protest. But if we want to challenge government action on its turf, one of the surest ways to fight bad governance is to go to the courts. It’s a tool from the founding fathers and often the most precise and powerful one.
Polluters get permits from government agencies. When they violate those permits often nothing happens unless a citizen brings it to the attention of the courts. In order for advocacy organizations to use the law they often have to have legal standing to bring suit.
For example, if people are concerned about emissions from a factory, the ability to sue as an environmental organization depends on those people being members of the organization. Many environmental laws were written with citizen-suit provisions because the environment can’t defend itself. In order for the system to work citizens have to hold government and polluters accountable. Studies show that voluntary measures don’t work when it comes to solving our greatest environmental challenges. Legal action is what keeps government honest and polluters accountable.
You can learn more and join the environmental movement in Missouri by visiting www.moenvrionment.org.