To Democratize Environmental Law, Let Ordinary People Decide

This post is part of our symposium on democratizing administrative law. You can find all the posts in the series here.

Conor Dwyer Reynolds

Environmental law has never felt so undemocratic. On nearly every aspect of environmental protection, the federal government is disconnected from the desires of its citizens. Despite overwhelming public support for increased government action on the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency’s workforce is shrinking, industry lobbyists increasingly regulate their former employers, and polluters face fewer and fewer inspections and criminal prosecutions. And while the majority of Americans believe climate change is an “urgent” problem the government needs to do “a lot” about, the Trump Administration proposes rules which will exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions, like its methane rollback plan.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of this delay and destruction. Petitions can be signed, protests can be attended, but at day’s end, those actions don’t seem to direct or decide environmental policy. Government officials do. The best most citizens can hope for is that a still-distant election will produce a friendlier administration, one that will manage to embrace our priorities despite the immense influence of industry.

There’s an irony beneath that sense of powerlessness, one that reveals a tragic flaw in modern environmental law. I want to both explore that flaw and introduce a tool from environmental law’s past that might help fix it. It’s a tool that entrusts ordinary people to decide: the jury.

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