Court allows lawsuits to challenge Endangered
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
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
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'
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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