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Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't

ELR Citation: 28 ELR 20434
Nos. 96-643, 118 S. Ct. 1003/46 ERC 1097/(U.S., 03/04/1998)

The Court holds that an environmental group lacks standing to maintain a suit for purely past violations of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). After receiving notice from the group of its failure to report EPCRA information in a timely fashion, the manufacturer filed all of the overdue forms with the relevant agencies. Nevertheless, the group filed suit against the manufacturer when the 60-day waiting period expired. The manufacturer filed a motion to dismiss arguing that EPCRA does not allow suit for a purely historical violation. On appeal, the manufacturer raised the issue of the group's standing to maintain the suit. The Court first holds that the standing issue is a threshold question that must be resolved in the group's favor before proceeding to the merits issue of whether the scope of EPCRA's right-of-action includes past violations. There is not a single case in which the Court has called the existence of a cause of action jurisdictional, and decided that question before resolving a dispute concerning the existence of an Article III case or controversy. The Court next rejects the "hypothetical jurisdiction" approach embraced by several circuit courts. Hypothetical jurisdiction produces nothing more than a hypothetical judgment, which is the same as an advisory opinion. Furthermore, the statutory and constitutional elements of jurisdiction are an essential ingredient of separation of powers, restraining the courts from acting at certain times.

The Court next holds that the group's complaint fails the redressability requirement of standing. None of the specific items of relief sought, and none that the Court can envision as appropriate under the general request, would serve to reimburse the group for losses caused by the late reporting, or to eliminate any effects of that late reporting upon the group. There being no controversy over whether the manufacturer failed to file reports, or over whether such a failure constitutes a violation, the request for declaratory judgment is worthless. Civil penalties might be viewed as compensation or redress to the group if they were payable to the group, but they are payable to the U.S. Treasury. Although investigation and prosecution costs would benefit the group, an interest in attorney fees is insufficient to create an Article III case or controversy. If the group had alleged a continuing violation or the imminence of a future violation, the injunctive relief requested—authorizing the group to inspect the manufacturer's facility and records and compelling the manufacturer to provide the group copies of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compliance reports—would remedy that alleged harm. But there is no such allegation.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens argues that the statutory and standing questions are both jurisdictional issues. According to Justice Stevens, the Court should have addressed the statutory question first to avoid unnecessarily passing on an undecided constitutional question. The Court has never before held that a plaintiff who is directly injured by a defendant lacks standing to sue because of a lack of redressability. Justice Stevens would hold that EPCRA does not confer jurisdiction over citizen suits for wholly past violations. Although the language of the citizen suit provision is ambiguous, other sections of EPCRA indicate that Congress did not intend to confer jurisdiction over citizen suits for wholly past violations. First, EPCRA requires the private litigant to give the alleged violator notice at least 60 days before bringing suit. Second, EPCRA places a ban on citizen suits once EPA has commenced an enforcement action. Finally, the Court's settled policy of adopting acceptable constructions of statutory provisions to avoid the unnecessary adjudication of constitutional questions strongly supports a construction of the statute that does not authorize citizen suits for wholly past violations.

Counsel for Petitioner
Leo P. Dombrowski
Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon
225 W. Wacker Dr., Chicago IL 60606
(312) 201-2000

Counsel for Respondent
Stefan A. Noe
Citizens for a Better Environment
407 S. Dearborn St., Ste. 1775, Chicago IL 60605
(312) 939-1530

Before Breyer, Ginsburg, Stevens, and O'Conner, JJ.