Supreme Court limits environmental lawsuits Challenge to action overseas restricted

June 13, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A deeply split Supreme Court put tight new limits yesterday on the right of nature conservation and wildlife groups and their members to sue in federal court to protect the environment from threats by the government.

In a ruling that apparently allows U.S. agencies more authority to take actions in other countries that may threaten endangered species of wildlife there, the court barred the courthouse door to a legal challenge aimed at those actions.

By mere coincidence, the ruling came as the Earth Summit -- a multi-nation conclave designed to find global solutions to environmental threats -- was reaching a decisive phase in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

The court majority, made up of seven justices using quite different reasons, declared that those who want to sue to block U.S. government actions potentially harmful to the environment have to come forward with specific, clear-cut proof that they would be personally and directly harmed by those actions.

For example, if a conservationist is worried over the potential harm that may befall one kind of animal living in another country, that individual may sue only if he or she has specific plans to go to that nation to study that animal, the court's main opinion said.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote that main opinion, used unusually broad language in getting to the result in a case testing who may sue to enforce a significant part of the Endangered Species Act. The language he used was so open-ended that the opinion appeared likely to affect the right to sue to protect the environment in this country, as well as abroad.

But the fact that the majority was so widely splintered may mean that the decision's actual impact, in the future, may be lessened somewhat. Two of the justices who made up the majority, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter, issued a separate opinion much less restrictive in tone.

The court's decision, in the case of Lujan vs. Defenders of Wildlife, involves a clause in federal law that requires federal government agencies to take measures to avoid harming endangered species. The issue was whether that restriction applies to U.S. agencies' action abroad.

For some years, the U.S. government believed that its overseas actions were restrained by that law. It changed its mind, however, in 1986. That switch in position was challenged in a lawsuit by three wildlife conservation groups -- Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of Animals and Their Environment, and the Humane Society.

Yesterday, the court concluded that those groups had no right to file their lawsuit, because their claims were not specific enough.

Justice Scalia's opinion rejected all of the claims of injury for those groups, saying it was not clear that the groups' members would be touched personally.

The result in the case, although not all of the reasons for it, drew the votes of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Kennedy, Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas and Byron R. White, in addition to Justice Scalia.

Justices Harry A. Blackmun and Sandra Day O'Connor dissented, accusing Justice Scalia of adopting a "slash-and-burn expedition through the law" that governs the right to sue for potential environment damage.

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