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Public-Interest Law Firms in Environmental Disputes

Since the mid-1960s, many law firms have practiced public-interest law by working for a cleaner environment; for the rights and needs of the poor, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and people of color; for consumer rights; and for other similar causes. This type of work is called cause lawyering (Scheingold and Sarat, 2004), which is generally oriented toward causes and interests of groups, classes, or organizations, rather than individuals (Handler, 1976). Although public-interest law firms engage in activities such as lobbying, reporting, public relations, and counseling, litigation is by far their most important activity.

A recent example of such litigation was a series of legal actions brought against the January 2017 executive order of President Donald Trump that banned Syrian refugees and people from several primarily Muslim nations from entering the United States (Kranish and Barnes, 2017).

In the area of education, public-interest law firms have handled cases on such matters as school financing, the legal rights of students and parents, bilingual education, and special education. In the area of employment, they have handled cases involving possible discrimination in hiring and promotion based on race, gender, or other legally protected social backgrounds. In the area of consumer products, firms have handled cases involving product quality, product safety, and guarantee and warranty practices.

Another key area for public-interest law is the environment. Private groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resource Defense Council, and the Sierra Club have used the courts to pursue better environmental quality. These efforts sometimes involve novel legal strategies (Bodansky, 2010; Stone, 2010). Environmental lawyers and organizations have been active in a variety of domains. They have challenged dams and other water resources projects, raised questions about nuclear power plants, attacked the pricing policies of electric utilities, stopped the use of dangerous pesticides, and sought to improve enforcement of such major environmental statutes as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clear Air Act, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Weibust, 2010).

Environmental disputes typically fall into two broad categories: (1) enforcement and (2) permitting cases. Enforcement disputes come about when a public-interest group raises questions about a party’s compliance with certain state or federal law setting specific environmental standards, such as air or water quality. Permitting cases involve disputes over the planned construction of new facilities, such as a dam or an airport.

Environmental disputes differ from more traditional disputes in several ways: Irreversible ecological damages may be involved; at least one party to the dispute may claim to represent broader public interest, including the interests of inanimate objects, wildlife, and unborn generations; and the implementation of a court decision may pose special problems (what will happen to the community if the major employer is forced to close a factory responsible for water pollution) (Goldberg et al., 2012).

Environmental litigation differs in at least one other respect. Unlike litigation involving racial discrimination in schools, housing, or employment, environmental litigation does not usually represent the interests of oppressed groups like the poor, women, and people of color. Instead, environmental litigation represents the interests of people more generally.

Over the years, environmental litigation has become more frequent in the United States as well as in other advanced industrialized nations (Baier, 2016). This growth reflects the significant increase in public awareness that our modern civilization causes substantial and possibly irreparable damage to the natural environment. Consequently, this awareness and the failure of many corporations to act as good stewards of the environment has led to a proliferation of regulatory laws aimed at protecting the natural environment.

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