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Citizen Suits: The Teeth in Public Participation

March 1995

Citation: 25 ELR 10141

Issue: 3

Author: Adam Babich

The courts have long recognized that Congress enacted environmental citizen-suit provisions to abate threats to the environment, supplement government enforcement, encourage government agencies to enforce the laws more effectively, and expand opportunities for public participation.1 In practice, however, citizen suits serve an even more fundamental purpose. This Comment argues that opportunities for citizen litigation enhance the legitimacy of administrative decision-making. By giving the public a practical way of seeking recourse when unelected agency officials decline to enforce or implement environmental laws, citizen-suit provisions strengthen the democratic character of implementation of environmental policy.

The Comment begins with a background discussion of Congress' purpose in enacting citizen-suit provisions. Next, the Comment discusses the need for public participation in environmental decisionmaking and argues that citizen-suit provisions play an important role in making true public participation possible. The Comment then briefly reviews environmental litigation under the common-law tort system, discussing some of the reasons the common law alone is inadequate to provide practical recourse for people faced with many typical types of pollution problems. Next, the Comment examines environmental citizen-suit provisions in terms of six factors that are essential to the success of citizen suits in providing the public with practical recourse from agencies' failure to enforce or otherwise implement environmental laws. The Comment then briefly reviews the mechanics of filing a citizen suit. It concludes that far from merely supplementing government enforcement, citizen-suit provisions are central to the U.S. system for environmental protection.

Adam Babich, J.D., Yale Law School, is Editor-in-Chief of ELR — The Environmental Law Reporter. While in private practice, he represented citizen groups, municipalities, and members of the regulated community on environmental issues.

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