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Environmental Citizen Suits at Thirtysomething: A Celebration and Summit

September 2003

Citation: 33 ELR 10721

Issue: 9

Author: James R. May, Bruce J. Terris, Zygmunt J.B. Plater, Ann Powers, Michael D. Axline, David Bookbinder, Peter Lehner, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.


In 1970, the U.S. Congress gave citizens the remarkable authority to file federal lawsuits as "private attorneys general" to enforce the Clean Air Act (CAA).1 Congress intended citizen suits to fill the vast void left by inadequate enforcement by federal and state regulators, and to ensure compliance and deter illegal activity. The approach stuck. Now more than one dozen federal environmental statutes, numerous state laws, and myriad foreign laws allow for such "environmental citizen suits." In 2002 alone, environmental and conservation groups, states, landowners, developers, and companies collectively provided advance notice of intent to bring federal environmental citizen suits nearly 200 times.

To commemorate the inception of the first environmental citizen suits, on April 4, 2003, the Widener Law Symposium Journal and the Mid-Atlantic Environmental Law Center, joined by cosponsors the Environmental Law Reporter(R), Sierra Club, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, hosted a conference at the university's campus in Wilmington, Delaware, Environmental Citizen Suits at Thirtysomething: A Celebration and Summit. The conference featured a virtual who's who of leading environmental law lawyer advocates and law professors.

James R. May is an Associate Professor of Law and Director, Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, at Widener University School of Law. Bruce J. Terris is a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C. Zygmunt J.B. Plater is a Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. Ann Powers is an Associate Professor of Law at Pace University. Michael D. Axline is a Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Oregon School of Law. David Bookbinder is a Senior Attorney with the Sierra Club. Peter Lehner is an Assistant Attorney General of New York State. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a Professor of Law at Pace University, Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund, and Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He directs NRDC's Estuary Enforcement Project. As background for the discussion contained in this Article, see James R. May, Now More Than Ever: Environmental Citizen Suit Trends, 33 ELR 10704 (Sept. 2003).

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