A thought occurred to me recently, and not for the first time, about the decisions of the New Jersey state judiciary, including our Supreme Court, in the area of environmental law generally and site remediation particularly. My realization was that those decisions are driven as much by a desire to facilitate the remediation of contaminated sites as they are by principled interpretation of statutes, regulations, canons of construction and the like.
Such an approach, of course, is understandable on one level, as New Jersey environmental statutes are ameliorative in nature, a cleaner environment is in the interest of everyone, and our fair state has suffered environmentally from its industrial legacy more than most jurisdictions. But on a deeper level, courts are supposed to decide cases in accordance with law, and deciding cases with a particular goal in mind may result in an injustice to the litigants. Moreover, fuzzy reasoning could provide inaccurate guidance to the bar and public.
In one recent case, for example, the Supreme Court of New Jersey was called upon to determine the degree of causation that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) needed to establish in order to impose liability on a discharger of hazardous materials. Rather than simply requiring proximate cause, the court hemmed and hawed its way along, formulating the appropriate standard at various points as a “real, not hypothetical” connection, and as a “reasonable nexus or connection” between the alleged discharger and the discharge.
The Court ultimately held that the standard of causation needed to establish liability varies with the form of relief requested. Unfortunately, the Court provided no support for this approach, which conflates the proof needed to establish liability with what is necessary to impose damages. This leads to the conclusion that the Court was reluctant to impose a difficult burden of proof on the state and, presumably, private litigants which could result in judgments for defendants and hence, in the Court’s view, deter remediation of contaminated sites.
In another recent case, the Supreme Court had to determine the interplay between the jurisdiction of a state agency and state trial courts in adjudicating liability for site remediation. The Court reversed the trial and appellate courts and held that a litigant could seek relief in court before the contours of the remediation had been firmly established.
Undergirding the Court’s reasoning was pragmatism – the earlier we allow a contribution plaintiff to pursue other responsible parties, the more the defendants will be encouraged to participate in the remediation process, thereby facilitating more and faster cleanups. While the result was correct as a matter of existing law, the reasoning was weighted far too heavily with an eye towards the result.
Finally, in a case that recently was argued and awaits adjudication, the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a statute of limitations exists under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, our state’s CERCLA analog, and, if so, how long it is and when it begins to run. Implicit in many of the questions the Court asked the advocates was which resolution would facilitate the faster remediation of more sites – no statute of limitations at all, which would allow remedial claims to be brought at any time and not foreclose an action, or a limitations period which would incentivize the plaintiff and defendants to move forward more quickly to clean up sites.
Remediating the environment, and making sure responsible parties are held to their obligations, are plainly laudable goals. But a little less focus on the ultimate environmental outcome and greater adherence to the principles of adjudication, statutory interpretation and the like would improve the quality of justice without sacrificing environmental protection.