Jurisprudential Fracture Chiropracture: Pennsylvania Justices Make a Salutary Adjustment of Erroneous Precedent

Posted on January 28, 2014 by Deborah Goldberg

On December 19, 2013, in Robinson Township v. Pennsylvania, a three-justice plurality of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revived the previously moribund Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which provides: 

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.  Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations to come.  As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Pa. Const. art. 1, § 27.  According to the plurality, lower courts interpreting the provision had been disregarding the constitutional text in favor of a judge-made rule under which the Environmental Rights Amendment offered protection only through implementing legislation.  The plurality noted that when “prior decisional law has obscured the manifest intent of a constitutional provision . . . [,] adjustment of precedent is . . . salutary.”  Slip op. at 64.

The realigned jurisprudence, under the plurality’s interpretation, now recognizes a directly enforceable right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment, which limits state power; common ownership of public natural resources, meaning all resources that “implicate the public interest” (air, water, wild flora and fauna) but are outside the scope of purely private property; and a trustee relationship, under which both state and local government must manage those resources for the benefit of “all the people,” including future generations.  The trust provision may be enforced by “citizen beneficiaries. . . in accordance with established principles of judicial review,” id. at 85, as well as by municipalities on behalf of their citizens. 

Relying exclusively on the trust provision, the plurality ruled that provisions of a state law that purported to preempt local environmental regulation of oil and gas operations and that required localities to authorize drilling in all zoning districts violated the Environmental Rights Amendment.  A concurring opinion by one justice, based on substantive due process, resulted in a 4-2 decision invalidating those provisions.  The decision thus transforms a state ceiling on environmental regulation of the oil and gas industry into a floor.  

In more than 70 pages addressed to the Equal Rights Amendment, the plurality dropped tantalizing hints about the further potential reach of its analysis.  The opinion suggests that government actions imposing “much heavier environmental and habitability burdens” on some properties and communities than on others—i.e., causing environmental injustice—violates the trustee’s obligation to manage the trust corpus for the benefit of “all the people.”  Under the plurality’s interpretation, moreover, respect for the rights of future generations requires that the state’s power to promote prosperity “be exercised in a manner that promotes sustainable property use and economic development.”  Id. at 79.  Whether Pennsylvania’s judiciary is ready for the new jurisprudence of environmental rights contemplated by the plurality remains to be seen.  A motion for reconsideration is pending before the Supreme Court.



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