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October 30, 2018

Supreme Court Stays Upcoming Juliana Trial

By Richard M. Frank

[Cross-posted from Legal Planet]

The presently constituted U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t seem to care for climate change litigation or regulation.

On Oct. 19, the Supreme Court took the extraordinary step of freezing pending discovery and the scheduled October 29th trial date in the closely-watched Juliana v. United States litigation.  In a brief order, Chief Justice Roberts stayed all district court proceedings in the Juliana case and ordered the plaintiffs to file a response by Oct. 24 to the Trump administration’s just-filed petition to the Supreme Court seeking to dismiss the case.

Chief Justice Roberts

I’ve previously written about the Juliana case in 2015 when the litigation was first filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon and more recently here and here.  Briefly, in 2015, 21 children from around the United States–-acting under the auspices of the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust–-filed suit against the United States in U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. They contend that the federal government has violated the children’s legal rights by failing to take far more dramatic steps to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and address urgent climate change concerns.

After U.S. District Court Judge Anne Aiken denied the federal government’s motion to dismiss and scheduled the Juliana case for trial later this month, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department mounted repeated efforts in the appellate courts to stay or dismiss the district court proceedings.  The Ninth Circuit rejected those attempts in separate opinions issued in May and July of this year.  The federal government appealed the Ninth Circuit’s July 2018 decision to the Supreme Court, but in a brief July 30th order Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected the government’s appeal as premature while noting that the breadth of the Juliana plaintiffs’ constitutional and public trust-based claims were “striking.”  In his capacity as the Supreme Court justice serving as “Circuit Justice” for the Ninth Circuit, Justice Kennedy in his order urged Judge Aiken to “take those concerns into account in assessing the burdens of discovery and trial…”  (Notably, Kennedy’s July 30 order in the Juliana case was his last official act as a U.S. Supreme Court justice before retiring the next day.)

Justice Kennedy is now gone, replaced by Brett Kavanaugh, who can be expected to be relatively less sympathetic to “impact” climate change litigation exemplified by the Juliana case.  But today’s remarkable order in the Juliana case is the product of a far less publicized transition at the Supreme Court: Chief Justice Roberts replaced Justice Kennedy as the Circuit Justice assigned to the Ninth Circuit with…himself.  (In recent years, statistics show that the Ninth Circuit is the most frequently-reversed federal circuit court in the nation; this trend may well account for Roberts’ particular interest in the Ninth Circuit’s decision-making.) That’s why Roberts’ name was on today’s order staying proceedings in the Juliana case pending consideration by all nine justices of the Trump Administration’s petition to stay or dismiss the case.

And with the conservatives justices now commanding a solid five-member majority on the Court, I’m not optimistic that the Juliana plaintiffs will ever see the trial of their claims come to pass.

Of course, this is not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has taken extraordinary and previously-unprecedented steps to sidetrack efforts to address climate change concerns.  In February 2016, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt enforcement of the Clean Power Plan promulgated by the Obama Administration in late 2015–the first time the Court had ever stayed a federal regulation before a decision by the lower federal courts.

So it would appear that these days the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t hospitable to either innovative climate change litigation or major climate change regulatory initiatives by the Executive Branch.  That leaves Congress.

Yikes.

September 10, 2018

California court finds public trust doctrine applies to state groundwater resources

[Cross-posted from Legal Planet]

The California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District has issued an important decision declaring that California’s powerful public trust doctrine applies to at least some of the state’s overtaxed groundwater resources.  The court’s opinion also rejects the argument that California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) displaces the public trust doctrine’s applicability to groundwater resources.

The Court of Appeal’s opinion in Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board decides two key issues of first impression for California water law: first, whether the public trust doctrine applies to California’s groundwater resources; and, second, if it does, if application of that doctrine has been displaced and superseded by the California Legislature’s 2014 enactment of SGMA.  A unanimous appellate panel answered the first question in the affirmative, the second in the negative.

The facts of the Environmental Law Foundation are straightforward and undisputed: the Scott River is a tributary of the Klamath River and itself a navigable waterway located in the northwestern corner of California.  The Scott River has historically been used by the public for recreational navigation and serves as essential habitat for migrating salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Critically, there are groundwater aquifers adjacent to the Scott River in Siskiyou County that are hydrologically connected to the surface flows of the Scott River.  Local farmers and ranchers in recent years have drilled numerous groundwater wells and pumped ever-increasing amounts of groundwater from those aquifers.  As a direct result, the surface flows of the Scott River have been reduced, at times dramatically.  Indeed, in the summer and early fall months, the Scott River has in some years been completely dewatered due to the nearby groundwater pumping.  The adverse effects on both the Scott River’s salmon fishery and recreational use of the river have been devastating.

Environmental groups and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, relying on California’s venerable public trust doctrine, initially responded to this environmental crisis by petitioning Siskiyou County and the State Water Resources Control Board to take administrative action to limit groundwater pumping in the Scott River watershed.  Both the Board and the County declined to do so.

Plaintiffs responded by filing suit, arguing that groundwater resources that are interconnected with the surface water flows of the Scott River are subject to and protected by the state’s public trust doctrine.  Siskiyou County disputed that claim, arguing that the public trust doctrine is wholly inapplicable to groundwater and that the country has no duty to limit groundwater pumping, even in the face of the resulting environmental damage to the Scott River ecosystem. (The Board, by contrast, eventually reconsidered its position, ultimately adopting plaintiffs’ view that groundwater resources interconnected with surface water flows are indeed subject to the public trust doctrine.)

The trial court concluded that the public trust doctrine does apply to the groundwater resources of the Scott River region.  While the litigation was pending there, however, the California Legislature enacted SGMA, which for the first time creates a statewide system of groundwater management in California, administered at the regional level.  Siskiyou County seized upon that legislation to argue that even if the public trust doctrine would otherwise apply to the County’s groundwater resources, the doctrine was automatically displaced and made inapplicable to groundwater as a result of SGMA’s allegedly “comprehensive” statutory scheme.  The trial court rejected this backstop argument as well, and the County appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s decision today resoundingly affirms the trial court on both issues.  On the threshold public trust claim, the justices rely heavily on the California Supreme Court’s landmark public trust decision, National Audubon Society v. Superior Court.  In National Audubon, the Supreme Court held that the public trust doctrine, a foundational principle of California natural resources law, fully applies to the state’s complex water rights system.  Specifically, National Audubon found that the City of Los Angeles’ diversion of water from the non-navigable, freshwater streams flowing into Mono Lake, which were reducing the lake level and causing environmental damage to the lake ecosystem, could be limited by state water regulators under the public trust doctrine.

The court in the Environmental Law Foundation concluded that the rationale and holding of National Audubon are fully applicable to the facts of the Scott River case.  Rejecting the County’s argument that extractions of groundwater should be treated differently from the diversions of surface water that were found in National Audubon to be causing environmental damage to Mono Lake, the Court of Appeal declares:

“The County’s squabble over the distinction between diversion and extraction is…irrelevant.  The analysis begins and ends with whether the challenged activity harms a navigable waterway and thereby violates the public trust.”

Accordingly, the Environmental Law Foundation court concludes that the public trust doctrine fully applies to extractions of groundwater that adversely affect navigable waterways such as the Scott River.

Turning to the County’s SGMA-based defense, the Court of Appeal had little difficulty concluding that by enacting that statute the Legislature did not intend to occupy the entire field of groundwater management and thereby abolish the public trust doctrine’s application to the groundwater resources at issue.  (The County had argued that SGMA’s enactment not only relieves the County of any public trust-related duties, but also precludes the State Water Resources Control Board from acting to protect public trust resources from environmental damage resulting from excessive groundwater extractions.)  The Court of Appeal concludes:

“[W]e can evince no legislative intent to eviscerate the public trust in navigable waters in the text or scope of SGMA…We conclude that the enactment of SGMA does not, as the County maintains, occupy the field, replace or fulfill public trust duties, or scuttle decades of decisions upholding, defending, and expanding the public trust doctrine.”

Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board represents an important judicial ruling concerning the public trust doctrine’s application to California’s water resources–perhaps the most important since the California Supreme Court decided the iconic National Audubon decision 35 years ago.  Additionally, Environmental Law Foundation is the first California appellate decision expressly applying the public trust doctrine to (at least some of) the state’s groundwater resources.  It’s also the first appellate decision interpreting SGMA, although that decision limits the application of the statute and harmonizes it with longstanding California public trust doctrine.

Perhaps most importantly, the Environmental Law Foundation opinion represents yet another ringing judicial affirmation of the public trust doctrine’s continuing, vital and foundational role in California natural resources law and policy.  The California judiciary has in recent years consistently given a robust interpretation to and application of the public trust doctrine.  Environmental Law Foundation is but the latest manifestation of that most welcome and trend.

(Full disclosure notice: the author of this post serves as counsel of record for the prevailing plaintiffs in the Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board case.)

May 7, 2018

From the Bookshelves: From Extraction to Emancipation: Development Reimagined by Raquel Aldana and Steven W. Bender

by Kevin R. Johnson

 

[Cross-posted from ImmigrationProf Blog]

 

From Extraction to Emancipation: Development Reimagined by Raquel Aldana and Steven W. Bender


Growing out of a site visit to Guatemala in the summer of 2015 and a follow-up conference, Raquel Aldana and Steven Bender, editors, have produced an edited volume that considers Guatemala as a case study to examine broad global themes arising from development practices in emerging economies around the world, including the final theme of migration and development.  The book includes chapters by fourteen scholars from the North and South, including Raquel Aldana, Steven Bender, Karrigan Börk, Julie Davies, Patrícia Ferreira, Lauren Gilbert, Christian Gonzalez, Beto Juarez, Mario Mancilla, Marcia Narine Weldon,  Blake Nordahl,  Mario Peña Chacon, Rachael Salcido and Maria Antonia Tigre. 

 

A significant economic development strategy of emerging economies has involved the promotion of direct foreign investment and trade.  While these practices have promoted steady economic growth, the book offers important lessons to investors and policy makers on strategies to improve distributional justice and respect for the rule of law. A large focus of the book is on enhancing corporate social responsibility, recognizing the unwillingness or inability of failed democracies to regulate industry’s potential ill effects on the environment and people, and in particular indigenous peoples who comprise a significant part of Guatemala’s population and are disproportionately poor. The book also examines such global themes as climate change, labor regimes in the context of trade, and forced migration (mostly from indigenous communities), all of which have transborder implications and across-border commonalities.

 

Part V of the book looks at the phenomena of migration and development. The recent surge of Central American unaccompanied minors and children fleeing with their mothers to the United States made it imperative to confront the human face of migrants whose fates are rooted in the dire reality that the countries from which they flee cannot or will not protect them. Largely, these migrants are escaping violence perpetuated by private actors, at times by gang members or even their own parents or spouses. Their stories of flight cannot be disengaged from the broader context in which the violence occurs. Theirs is also the story of failed nations, characterized by ineptitude, weakness and, even worse, indifference or at times even complicity. This story of failed nations applies beyond the reign of private “rogues” whom everyone agrees are bad actors (gangs, drug traffickers, violent criminals). The other side of the coin is a more nuanced story about the failing role of some of these Central American nations in regulating the acts of corporations, whether owned by the oligarchy or operated by transnational actors.

 

Blake Nordahl’s chapter, for example, narrates Evelia’s story. Evelia, like many other Central American asylum seekers, won her case based on a compelling story of domestic violence. Nordahl’s trip to  Guatemala to study Evelia’s prior life in rural Guatemala, however, revealed to him and to readers a more complex entangled story of privatized violence that includes the historical and modern exploitation of people at the hands of Guatemala’s sugar industry. This carefully documented chapter makes a compelling case to move our own asylum and refugee laws beyond simple stories of  individualized violence and to recognize the so-called “economic refugees” from nations like Guatemala as victims of a structural persecution that also involves collusion between the state and corporations.

 

Lauren Gilbert’s chapter connects Guatemala’s story of migration and violence to both the past and the present— the civil war years to now—and to the licit and illicit actors who exploit them. Her concluding chapter examines the role of gendered violence directed at women in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras both during the political upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s and over the last decade, examining how the failure then to confront gender violence as a form of state-sponsored terrorism led to its role today in contributing to the climate of fear and instability that plagues the region. The gendered violence that propels migration today from the Northern Triangle is connected to this dark yet largely untold history. Today, the levels of violence in these countries match or surpass those during wartime. While today, Northern Triangle states largely blame private actors (e.g., gangs) for the resurgence of violence directed at women, Gilbert’s chapter shows that this new terror cannot be disentangled from these nations’ dark past with gendered state-sponsored violence.

 

In the end, both Nordahl and Gilbert look to international norms as part of the solution. Nordahl acknowledges that permanent solutions to Guatemala’s structural violence are largely a Guatemala project. However, he also documents that for the past twenty years Guatemala’s feeble attempts at land reforms and poverty alleviation through multiple policies have been largely inadequate. Thus, at least for now, Nordahl makes a compelling case that more expansive notions of persecution must be adopted as part of refugee law to recognize economic exploitation as persecution. For her part, Gilbert sees hope in international law’s evolution in recognizing gendered violence, a significant shift from when she worked as a UN Truth Commission lawyer in El Salvador more than twenty-five years ago. This new visibility and naming of gendered violence is an important first step to counter practices, including in the United States, of turning our backs on persecuted women and girls.

 

Download Introductory chapter of book


April 30, 2018

Changing the politics of housing in California

by Christopher S. Elmendorf, Richard Frank and Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from the San Francisco Chronicle]

The recent defeat of Senate Bill 827, state Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill allowing 5-story buildings near transit hubs, was an enormous setback for California’s efforts to make housing more affordable while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Our state is now in a serious bind.

The only way to make California housing widely affordable is to build a lot more of it. We could do this with Texas-style suburban sprawl — Houston has boomed while remaining affordable — but that would sacrifice the environment. The alternative is to add residential density to existing neighborhoods, near job centers and mass transit.

California picked density over sprawl a decade ago, when it enacted SB375, a commendable law that requires local governments to plan for energy-efficient, transit-oriented development. Yet most city and county planners report that this planning mandate has had “little to no impact on actions by their city.”

The defeat of Wiener’s bill and the so far meager impact of SB375 speak to a deeper truth: California is not going to achieve large-scale, high-density development near transit unless it can change the local politics of housing.

In theory, the state might induce pro-housing political realignments with taxes and subsidies — for example, reallocating property tax revenue to cities that allow dense housing near transit and starving those that don’t. But the quick demise of SB827 suggests that serious penalties are not yet enactable, and subsidies would have to compete with many other General Fund priorities.

We think California can bolster pro-housing forces at the local level without bringing down the hammer or breaking the bank. Consider these alternatives:

1. Leverage “cap and trade” to make the climate consequences of density more transparent — and more tangible. The linchpin of California’s climate change regime is the state’s cap-and-trade program, which puts a statewide ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources and requires emitters to buy allowances for their releases. California could strengthen pro-housing forces in city politics by folding local governments into the cap-and-trade program.

The state would issue a formula estimating the per-dwelling climate impact of new developments, taking account of proximity to transit, size, materials and parking. When a local government permits new housing that’s more climate-efficient than the typical new unit statewide, it would be rewarded with credits to sell in the cap-and-trade market.

This would give pro-housing “YIMBY” activists a green cudgel to wield in local fights over development. Using the state’s formula, proponents could quantify the environmental benefits of each project near transit. Meanwhile, budget-minded city officials would have a fiscal incentive to upzone land near transit. The more transit-friendly development the city permits, the more allowances it would earn to sell in the greenhouse-gas market.

2. Reframe local debates with state reporting of “housing potential” along transit lines. Guardians of the status quo point out that San Francisco has increased its housing production in recent years. But the picture would look quite different if we compared current production to the city’s potential for transit-friendly housing, rather than to the city’s very modest output over the past few decades.

3. Let cities recapture the value they can create by upzoning and streamlined permitting. Opponents of Wiener’s bill called it a giveaway to developers. They had a point. Rezoning a lot from single-family use to five-story apartments increases its value tremendously. Why should the landowner keep all that profit? When local governments control rezoning, they can demand ancillary benefits such as affordable-housing units, infrastructure investments, and more. All this is standard fare — and not just for major rezonings, but for individual projects under the highly discretionary permitting rules that prevail at the local level today.

Yet project-by-project bargaining has major downsides. The uncertainties and delays, and the inefficient medium of exchange (in-kind benefits rather than money), contribute to the result we see all around us: an inadequate supply of new housing. Local officials surely understand this, but right now they have no way to profit from clear, nondiscretionary rules for development.

To encourage development on lands near transit, California should allow cities to share directly in the property value created by upzoning and permitting reforms. Cities could be authorized to impose “special assessments” for upzoning or permit-streamlining on lands within a half-mile of transit — recouping, say, 50 percent to 75 percent of the value added. The state law authorizing such value-recapture assessments would probably need to be approved by referendum vote. But once it is enacted, cities would have a fiscal incentive to supplant project-specific haggling with transparent, value-enhancing and development-enabling rules.

Our state’s housing-affordability crisis was decades in the making, and these solutions won’t work miracles overnight. But if state-mandated upzoning is off the table, and state-mandated planning is ineffectual, we had better start thinking about ways the state might intervene at the root, targeting the local politics of housing.

April 30, 2018

Native American Treaties, Declining Salmon Populations, Broken Promises & Environmental Justice

by Richard Frank

[Cross-posted from Legal Planet]

Pending Washington v. U.S. Supreme Court Decision Offers Hope & Vindication for Tribes, Coastal Fisheries

Truth be told, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017-18 Term has been an unsually quiet one for environmental and natural resources law.  Until now.

This week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a last-minute addition to the Court’s current docket.  Washington v. United States, No. 17-269, a case the justices only accepted for review in January, looms as the most consequential environmental Supreme Court decision of 2018.  It’s also a fascinating mix of Western American history, Native American law and policy, fisheries protection and environmental justice.

The Washington case has its historical and legal roots in a 164-year old treaty in which the federal government granted Native American tribes in Western Washington permanent fishing rights.  The 1854-55 “Stevens Treaties” (named for the Governor of the then-Washington Territory and Superintendent of Indian Affairs who negotiated the pacts with the tribes on behalf of the federal government) guaranteed the tribes “the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations…in common with all citizens of the Territory” in exchange for the tribes’ relinquishment of their claims to 64 million acres of land in Washington in favor of relocation to tribal reservations.

The Washington tribes’ principal concern–both in the mid-nineteenth century and today–has been preserving their access to regional salmon fisheries that have played such a vital role as a tribal food source, means of commercial exchange and for cultural and religious purposes.  As was the case with most nineteenth century government-tribal treaties, the Stevens Treaties turned out to be a bad deal for the Washington tribes.  The fishing rights they’d negotiated were quickly trampled, both by white settlers who relocated in the region and often blocked Native American fishers’ access to the waters of northwest Washington, and by white commercial fishermen who by the end of the 19th century were catching enormous quantities of salmon in the region, leaving precious little fish for tribal members using their more traditional fishing methods and gear.

After Washington was admitted to the Union in 1889, state officials overtly and repeatedly acted to frustrate the tribes’ exercise of their on- and off-reservation fishing rights granted under the Stevens Treaties.  This state of affairs prompted numerous political and legal conflicts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including two cases ultimately decided by the Supreme Court–both interpreting the Stevens Treaties in the tribes’ favor.

Fast forward to the late 20th century: the United States, both on its own behalf and as trustee for the Pacific Northwest tribes, sued Washington State in 1970 to address the state-federal/tribal political conflicts and enforce the Stevens Treaties’ fishing clause.  By that time, however, the single greatest threat to tribal fishing rights had become modern technology–specifically, the extensive system of road culverts that the state and its political subdivisions had built to channel rivers and streams underneath the state’s road and highway system.  It’s essentially undisputed that Washington’s road culvert system substantially impedes the migration of salmon both upstream and downstream.  That, in turn, has led to the substantial diminution of salmon populations in western Washington, to the detriment of Native American and white fishers alike.  (It’s also undisputed that technology currently exists by which state and local road builders can avoid this adverse environmental impact by designing road culverts that allow unobstructed fish passage.)

In an earlier phase of this longstanding litigation, a federal district court held–and the Supreme Court ultimately confirmed–that under the Stevens Treaties the tribes have the right to up to 50% of the harvestable fish in the affected region in western Washington.

The latest chapter in this protracted legal saga began in 2001, when the tribes and federal government asked the district court “to enforce a duty upon the State of Washington to refrain from constructing and maintaining culverts under State roads that degrade fish habitat so that adult fish production is reduced.”  Washington State’s legal response to this claim was straightforward: “there is no treaty-based right or duty of fish habitat protection” as asserted by the federal government and tribes.

The district court ruled in favor of the tribes and U.S., concluding that the fishing clause of the Stevens Treaties imposes a duty on Washington State to refrain from building or operating culverts under state roads that hinder fish passage and thereby substantially diminish the number of fish that would otherwise be available for tribal harvest.  The district judge thereafter held a trial to determine an appropriate remedy, eventually issuing a detailed injunction requiring state officials to inventory all state-owned barrier culverts; take immediate steps to retrofit some of the most damaging culverts; and mandating that the remainder be retrofitted at the end of their useful lives.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in a lengthy, unanimous opinion authored by Judge William Fletcher.  The Court of Appeals concluded that by building and maintaining a system of barrier culverts, “Washington has violated, and is continuing to violate, its obligation to the Tribes under the Treaties.”  Rejecting the state’s argument that the government’s treaty obligations do not extend to fisheries habitat protection, Judge Fletcher concluded:

"The Indians did no understand the Treaties to promise that they would have access to their usual and accustomed fishing places, but with a qualification that would allow the government to diminish or destroy the fish runs.  Governor Stevens did not make, and the Indians did not understand him to make, such a cynical and disingenuous argument.”

In its successful petition for certiorari, Washington State argues that its obligations under the Treaties do not extend to providing fish-friendly culverts and road projects; that the federal government is equitably estopped from arguing to the contrary by virtue of having approved some of the offending culverts; and that the injunctive relief granted by the lower courts offends federalism principles and imposes an undue financial burden on the state.

The respective legal arguments advanced in the Washington case have a decidedly through-the-looking-glass quality to them: on the one hand, Washington–normally a progressive and environmentally-conscious state–is taking a quite conservative legal and political position usually embraced by the reddest of red states.  Conversely, the Trump Administration and Justice Department have maintained the same aggressive advocacy in favor of the tribes’ fishing rights and fisheries protection that previous administrations have advanced in the Washington litigation.  (The latter comes as a pleasant and most welcome surprise.)

One other interesting jurisprudential footnote to the case: Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would recuse himself from the Court’s deliberations in the Washington case after he belatedly discovered that in 1985 he’d participated in an earlier phase of the same litigation while serving as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  (Kennedy’s recusal would be more consequential if Washington were a “normal” Supreme Court case in which his vote would likely be decisive; however, the justices’ votes in Native American law cases generally don’t track their normal progressive/conservative voting patterns.)

Early press reports indicate that the Supreme Court’s April 18th arguments did not go particularly well for Washington State.  That’s both unsurprising and a very good thing.  The federal government and the tribes have the better of the legal argument in Washington.  The lower federal courts were quite right to reject Washington State’s argument that its construction of environmentally-damaging infrastructure, responsible for devastating fisheries on which the tribal nations depend, is somehow consistent with its longstanding obligations under the Stevens Treaties.  As Ninth Circuit Judge Fletcher aptly noted, that’s a cynical and disingenuous argument indeed, and one that the Supreme Court should reject.

Ultimately, Washington v. United States is a case about environmental justice, and the obligation of government to live up to both the letter and spirit of its fiduciary duty to Native American tribes under longstanding treaties.  For centuries, government has failed to do so.  Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s decision in Washington–due by the end of June–will follow a different and more just legal path.

February 8, 2018

Water Law Students Visit the California Supreme Court

By Professor of Environmental Practice Rick Frank

On Tuesday, February 6th, I led my Spring 2018 Water Law students on a visit to the California Supreme Court to attend oral arguments in a major water law case pending before the justices. The Supreme Court session began with a warm welcome to our King Hall delegation from Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye, herself a proud King Hall alum. We then observed a lively hour of oral arguments, in a case in which the California building industry is challenging the State Water Resources Control Board's fee system adopted to finance the Board's statewide water pollution control program. The students observed the justices peppering the arguing attorneys with questions, and those attorneys demonstrating dramatically different styles of oral argument. This type of "experiential learning" outside the classroom is a most valuable part of my student's King Hall legal education.  And--also importantly--they had a thoroughly good time attending the California Supreme Court arguments.

 

 

January 24, 2018

14th Annual Water Law Symposium: “The Future of California’s Water Infrastructure”

By Richard Frank

On Saturday, January 20th, I had the opportunity to accompany a number of King Hall water law students to the 14th Annual Water Law Symposium, held this year at UC Berkeley. The symposium is an extraordinary collaboration among six different Northern California law schools--including King Hall. Remarkably, this annual event is wholly student-organized and -produced, and recently won an American Bar Association award as the best law student-organized event in the nation. It's also become California's premier water law conference.

The theme of this year's symposium was "The Future of California's Water Infrastructure"--a most timely topic given the 2017 failure of the Oroville Dam and other water-related infrastructure challenges. King Hall's contribution to the symposium took the form of organizing and presenting a panel on "The Challenges of an Evolving Climate: A Case Study of the Impacts of Wildfire on California's Water Infrastructure."

Special kudos to King Hall water law student Ellen Simmons '19, one of the organizers of the UC Davis panel at the Symposium. When one of the panelists was forced to cancel at the last minute due to a personal emergency, Ellen stepped up, assumed the panel moderator's role and performed flawlessly in that capacity. Similarly, King Hall faculty colleague Camille Pannu, Director of the Water Justice Clinic, graciously did double duty at the symposium: in addition to speaking on the King Hall-organized panel with Ellen, Professor Pannu pinch-hit for a UCLA Law School colleague who was unable to travel to UC Berkeley due to the Montecito mudslides and subsequent closure of Highway 101.

 

 

January 8, 2018

The California Supreme Court’s Most Important Environmental Law Decisions of 2017

[Cross-posted from Legal Planet.]

By Richard Frank

As 2017 comes to a close, let's take a moment to assess the California Supreme Court's most significant environmental law decisions of the year.

There are a large number of decided cases to choose from: as has been true over the past decade, in 2017 the California Supreme Court devoted a substantial portion of its civil docket to cases of interest to environmental lawyers, organizations and the regulated community.  With that caveat, here's my list-an admittedly subjective one-of the Court's five most important environmental decisions of 2017:

5. Lynch v. California Coastal Commission.   This regulatory takings case arose after a coastal storm destroyed a seawall built and maintained by coastal landowners in San Diego County.  The landowners sought a permit from the California Coastal Commission to rebuild the seawall.  The Commission granted the permit, but limited its term to 20 years in order to give the  Commission a future opportunity to assess whether sea level rise, increased intensity of coastal storms and other projected impacts of climate change warrant a different regulatory strategy prospectively.  The landowners then rebuilt the seawall and simultaneously sued the Commission, claiming the fixed 20-year permit term triggered a compensable taking of their property rights.  The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, concluding that the landowners had forfeited their right to bring their regulatory takings claim when they proceeded to rebuild the seawall.  As Justice Carol Corrigan succinctly put it in her decision on behalf of a unanimous Court: "Plaintiffs obtained all the benefits of their permit when they built the seawall.  They cannot now be heard to complain of its burdens."

(The Lynch decision would have been even more significant had Court proceeded to address the merits of the property owners' takings claim.  Many observers had hoped the justices would use the case as a vehicle to determine how much latitude California land use agencies have to address and respond to the looming natural resource, economic and regulatory challenges presented by climate change.  Alas, that was not to be.  Nevertheless, Lynch establishes a forceful precedent that regulatory takings plaintiffs cannot have it both ways.)

4.  City of San Buenaventura v. United Water Conservation District  One of the many reasons modern California environmental law is so fascinating is that it draws upon-and inevitably intersects with-so many other areas of public law.  City of San Buenaventura is a prominent example.  The issue was whether a local water district's imposition of a "groundwater pumping charge" on well operators to fund regional water conservation measures violates two voter-enacted state constitutional provisions that limit the authority of state and local governments to collect revenue through taxes, fees and other charges.  Specifically, the City of Ventura, which pumps large amounts of groundwater to deliver to its residential customers, claimed that the district's pumping charge: a) contravened Proposition 218, which requires a vote of the electorate before a local agency can impose a tax, assessment or fee on property "as an incident of property ownership"; and/or b) violated Proposition 26, which similarly requires a public vote before a local government can assess many-but not all-levies, charges and exactions.  The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Proposition 218 was inapplicable to the district's groundwater pumping charge and that the charge likely did not violate the provisions of Proposition 26.  (The justices did remand the case to the Court of Appeal to determine whether the city's allocated share of the conservation fees by the district "bear a fair or reasonable relationship to the [city's] burdens on, or benefits received from" the defendant water district's conservation programs.)

The City of San Buenaventura decision is significant for two interrelated reasons: many of California's groundwater basins are severely overdrafted, and state water managers are only now belatedly attempting to adopt remedial measures like the conservation efforts that the contested groundwater pumping charge is intended to address.  Second, the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) passed by the California Legislature in 2014 requires local governments to organize into Groundwater Sustainability Agencies which are empowered to assess fees on groundwater necessary to fund the GSAs development and enforcement of Groundwater Sustainability Plans over the next few years.  City of San Buenaventura finds that these groundwater conservation efforts, properly implemented, do not require a popular vote before the GSAs and water districts generally assess the fees on groundwater users and pumpers needed to fund those conservation efforts.  That's a big deal.

3. California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland.  Like the City of San Buenaventura case, California Cannabis Coalition is not your typical environmental law case.  While it does arise in a burgeoning corner of California land use law-whether and to what extent local governments can ban marijuana dispensaries from their jurisdictions-the case involves the intersection of the aforementioned Proposition 218 (limiting the ability of local governments to increase taxes) and another key state constitutional provision: the scope of California voters' initiative power.  Specifically, the City of Upland had in effect a land use ordinance banning medical marijuana dispensaries.  Marijuana advocates proposed a local voter initiative to repeal that ban and require that dispensary owners pay the city an annual "licensing and inspection fee" of $75,000.  City officials refused to submit the initiative to the voters in a special election, concluding that Proposition 218 required that a vote on the initiative await take place in a subsequent general election.  The initiative proponents sued, claiming that the constitutional right of voters to utilize the initiative process trumps compliance with Proposition 218.  The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that Proposition 218 does not restrict the ability of voters to impose taxes via the initiative process.

As Legal Planet colleague Ethan Elkind noted in an earlier post analyzing California Cannabis Coalition, the decision has important consequences for a wide array of future land use, environmental and transportation projects.  He aptly observes:

"The potential result is that any citizen, nonprofit or business group that wants to place a special tax measure or fee on the ballot for something like a new school or transit line may only need a simple majority voter approval, provided they can get enough signatures for their measure.  And unless barred by some other law, I gather there's nothing stopping agency representatives or elected leaders in their individual capacities from sponsoring these campaigns in ways that essentially amount to the city, county, or agency sponsoring the measure themselves...

At a time when California is struggling to reduce emissions from the transportation sector due to growing commutes from the lack of housing and transit near jobs, this decision could be significant for finally allowing locals the flexibility they need to fund these investments. Under California Cannabis Coalition vs. City of Upland, local government finance for a host of environmentally significant projects, from parks to transit to infill housing infrastructure, may have just gotten easier to pass."

2. Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority.  Continuing a pattern over the past decade, the California Supreme Court's most significant environmental law decisions in 2017 concerned the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Friends of the Eel River raised a CEQA issue not previously addressed by the justices: whether, and in what circumstances, CEQA is preempted by federal law.  The specific issue in Friends of the Eel River was whether CEQA's application to publicly-owned railroad projects in California is trumped by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA).  In a 6-1 decision authored by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the Court held that while CEQA's application to privately-owned railroad projects in California is preempted by ICCTA, CEQA continues to apply to at least some publicly-owned and operated railroad projects.

As I commented in an earlier post, the majority opinion in Friends of the Eel River is less than a model of clarity.  But it is unquestionably an important decision-especially with respect to CEQA's application to another, larger and more controversial public railroad project: California's High Speed Rail initiative.  And the question of federal preemption of CEQA's application to public railway projects is far from settled: the U.S. Court of Appeals has pending before it another CEQA preemption case involving...California's High Speed Rail project.  And federal regulators responsible for implementing the ICCTA have opined administratively that this federal law does indeed preempt CEQA.

1. Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments.  In my opinion, 2017's most consequential environmental law decision was another complex CEQA case.  Cleveland National Forest Foundation involved the adequacy of an environmental impact report prepared by the San Diego Association of Governments (SanDAG) in conjunction with that entity's adoption of a regional transportation plan for the San Diego metropolitan area.  That plan, in turn, was mandated under SB 375, landmark climate change legislation requiring unprecedented linkage between California transportation and land use planning efforts, with the overarching goal of reducing the state's aggregate greenhouse gas emissions.  (One of the many reasons this decision is so important is that it's the Supreme Court's first opportunity to address SB 375.)

As Legal Planet colleague Sean Hecht recounts in an earlier and more detailed post on the Cleveland National Forest Foundation decision,  the justices issued something of a split opinion.  On the one hand, the Court's 6-1 decision finds SanDAG's EIR to be legally adequate.  At the same time, the justices spend considerably time and effort discussing the overarching need of CEQA documents to make a thorough and good faith effort to address the impacts of climate change.  And the decision also makes clear that climate change analysis under CEQA is an evolving science-the depth and sophistication of climate change analysis required in a current CEQA document likely exceeds that of the 2011 SanDAG EIR.  Inasmuch as the intersection of climate change impacts and CEQA will be an increasingly crucial aspect of CEQA analysis prospectively, Cleveland National Forest Foundation is required reading for CEQA attorneys, planners and scholars.

(One postscript: in a sense, the most important California Supreme Court case of 2017 is the one the justices decided not to decide.  California Chamber of Commerce v. California Air Resources Board was a challenge to the legality of the Board's cap-and-trade program, a key element of CARB's multifaceted strategy to reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions.  Early in 2017, the California Court of Appeal in Sacramento rejected the regulated community's state constitutional challenge to CARB's cap-and-trade program, ruling that CARB's auctioning of GHG emission allocations is not a "tax" within the meaning of California's Proposition 13, and therefore not subject to the measure's two-thirds vote requirement by the California Legislature.  Industry petitioned the Supreme Court for review of that decision, but the justices denied review this past summer.  Had the justices agreed to hear the case, it would have kept CARB's cap-and-trade program under a cloud of doubt and political controversy.  But with the Court of Appeal's now-final decision upholding the constitutionality of the cap-and-trade program, that uncertainty was eliminated and a political consensus quickly emerged, allowing the state Legislature to reaffirm the cap-and-trade program and extend it through 2030 via a statute passed earlier this year.)

2017 demonstrates that the California Supreme Court remains the nation's most influential state court when it comes to environmental law and policy.

 

 

April 27, 2017

UC Davis School of Law Launches New Water Justice Clinic

(Cross-posted from Legal Planet.)

UC Davis School of Law has launched an exciting new Water Justice Clinic designed to advocate for clean, healthy and adequate water supplies for all Californians.  The new Clinic is a project of the Aoki Center for Critical Race and Nation Studies, in partnership with the  California Environmental Law and Policy Center, and will offer unique environmental justice advocacy opportunities for King Hall students.

Currently, over one million California residents lack access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water.  An overwhelming percentage of those residents live in rural California, and represent communities of color.  The barriers to accessing clean water are not limited to environmental issues, and lack of access to water imposes a significant financial burden on low-income families, while also resulting in increased rates of obesity, shorter life expectancies and decreased learning outcomes for children.

However, very few rural legal services attorneys are able to litigate water law cases, and no legal services attorneys offer transactional legal support to these California residents.  King Hall's Water Justice Clinic seeks to fill that gap by identifying viable drinking water solutions and then implementing those solutions by providing transactional legal support to the affected low-income, rural communities.

Prominent environmental justice expert Camille Pannu has been recruited to lead the Water Justice Clinic as its inaugural director.  Pannu, a Berkeley Law alum, was passionate about environmental justice issues even as a law student.  After law school, Pannu worked on environmental justice cases for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment as an Equal Justice Works Fellow in the San Joaquin Valley.  Before coming to King Hall, she also clerked for District Judge Stefan Underhill in Connecticut and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Paez.

The overarching goal of the new Clinic is to insure that all Californians have access to clean, affordable and safe drinking water, primarily by strengthening rural community water systems.  The Clinic will also advocate for policies that fund needed improvements to those systems, address groundwater contamination, and ensure that rural voices are fully represented in future California water management decisions.

Recent headlines about the drinking water scandal in Flint, Michigan and--closer to home--the water crisis faced by East Porterville residents in the southern San Joaquin Valley have prompted action by California legislators and voters to confront those problems directly.  Proposition 1A on California's November 2014 ballot contained funding to provide assistance to California's disadvantaged communities, and King Hall's Water Justice Clinic is made possible by a three-year grant of Proposition 1A funds by the State Water Resources Control Board.  Indeed, the Clinic is the primary legal services provider among the organizations funded by these Proposition 1A grants.

Clinic Director Pannu reports that King Hall students will play a critical role in assisting these communities by enrolling in the clinical program each semester.  There they will partner with grassroots community organizations such as the Community Water Center, while also obtaining classroom training from Pannu in water justice and related issues.

April 13, 2017

A Field Trip to Bodega Bay

On Friday, April 7th, I had the opportunity to lead my King Hall Ocean and Coastal Law students on a field trip to the UC Davis Marine Biology Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California.  The Lab, founded by the University of California a half-century ago, is the site of pioneering marine science research by UC Davis faculty and graduate students who work at the Lab.

During our visit, my law students received an overview of the Lab's history and operations from UCD Professor and Marine Lab Director Gary Cherr.  We also heard substantive briefings from two post-graduate UCD researchers, who shared the status and findings of their marine science projects.  Director Cherr provided our group with an extensive tour of the Lab and surrounding area, which are part of a UC-owned marine reserve located on a spectacular peninsula extending into the Pacific Ocean on the Sonoma County coast.

Last week's field trip afforded our law students first-hand exposure to the marine science research that serves as much of the foundation of Ocean law and policy that they've been studying this semester at King Hall.  Additionally, it provides our students with invaluable exposure to scientists: learning to work effectively with experts from a variety of disciplines is essential to a successful environmental law practice--and an essential part of King Hall students' legal education.