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Court allows lawsuits to challenge Endangered Species Act

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March 19, 1997
Web posted at: 6:17 p.m. EST (2317 GMT)

From Correspondent Anthony Collings

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that citizens may sue the government for overly aggressive enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

The ruling was a tactical victory for citizens who claim endangered-species laws grant too much protection for wildlife and too little for economic interests. It was a setback for the Department of Justice, which had sought to limit lawsuits to environmentalists suing in cases of alleged under-protection.

The court gave the go-ahead for a lawsuit by farmers and irrigation districts threatened with cutbacks in water allocations along the California-Oregon border during a 1992 drought. The water cutbacks were ordered by federal officials, who were enforcing the Endangered Species Act to protect two species of fish -- the Lost River sucker and the shortnose sucker -- in reservoirs of the Klamath Project.

The farmers and irrigation districts sought a court order blocking the water cutbacks, claiming the right to sue because the Endangered Species Act permits some citizen lawsuits.

The federal government disagreed, saying the citizen lawsuit provision existed to force officials to protect the habitats of endangered species.

The justices reversed lower court rulings that agreed with the government's contention. Such a claim "is reviewable under the (act's) citizen-suit provision," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.

"It is true that the plaintiffs here are seeking to prevent application of environmental restrictions rather than to implement them," Scalia said. "But the 'any person' formulation applies."

Lawyers in the case, styled Bennett vs. Spear, said the plaintiffs had suffered an estimated $75 million in damages because of crop loss and being forced to sell cattle they could not feed.

The ruling should make it easier in the future for opponents of environmental policies to have their day in court, but they still must persuade a court that officials have gone too far in specific instances.

 
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