5 Cases To Watch At The D.C. Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, more commonly referred to simply as the D.C. Circuit, has a number of forthcoming environmental cases which could establish important legal precedent for the future. While the court is capable of adding more cases to its calendar in the future, there are already a number of high-profile legal disputes which are brewing and worthy of the public’s attention.

Environmentalism is on the mind of everyone these days, particularly now that global climate change is finally receiving more serious media coverage. What are the major environmental cases that you should be paying attention to, and why are they so important in the first place? Here’s a breakdown of 5 environmental cases to watch at the D.C. Circuit, and how they could establish precedent which impacts American society for decades to come.

  1. A Feud Over A Natural Gas Pipeline

One of the more incendiary cases we can expect to see at the D.C. Circuit is a feud over a natural gas pipeline. The Transcontinental Pipeline’s Atlantic Sunrise Project is facing off with the nonprofit Allegheny Defense Project and various other environmental groups to determine how seriously Pennsylvania landowners and environmentalists can challenge the construction of natural gas pipelines. Given that previous legal and social disputes over the development of pipelines have attracted plenty of media attention, we can suspect that this particular feud over a natural gas pipeline will also result in similar social calamity.

Homeowners are effectively arguing that they’re caught in an administrative limbo where they’re not permitted to seriously legally contest the creation of pipelines until they’ve already effectively been created. According to a report from Bloomberg Environment, Judge Patricia Millet noted that the current legal status quo was a “Kafkaesque regime,” which is to say it’s horrifically complex and impossible for non-legal gurus to make sense of. The homeowners and environmentalist groups bringing the lawsuit are of the opinion that the regulations surrounding the contestation of a pipeline’s establishment need to be simplified for the sake of everyday people.

Feuds over the creation, maintenance, and expansion of natural gas pipelines and oil pipelines have been garnering plenty of media coverage in recent years. Protest surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, for instance, drew international headlines in 2016 and 2017.

  1. A fierce fight over President Trump’s border wall

Perhaps the most high-profile environmental case being considered by the D.C. Circuit is a fierce fight over President Trump’s border wall. When then-candidate Donald Trump announced his intentions to run for the presidency, he infamously declared that he would construct a border wall between the United States and Mexico, something that environmentalists immediately grew concerned about. Environmentalist groups argued that by potentially creating a hard, physical border between the United States and Mexico, various species and general biodiversity would be threatened.

According to Bloomberg Environment, this case is being brought predominately by the Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups. The specifics of the case won’t necessarily have to do with environmental issues, however, as some legal experts are arguing that environmentalists are going beyond the scope of the law by raising such concerns. Whether they’re successful remains to be seen, but the issue could ultimately become a dispute over funding powers.

The border wall is essentially about immigration which has been a hot issue for Trump’s supporters. In paces like Canada, politicians have been much more careful in raising the issue of immigration and firms like Kurzfeld immigration law firm have been doing great work helping new arrivals settle in the country. But not in the US.

Congress has the power of the purse, for instance, but President Trump’s shuffling around of already-appropriated money to fulfill his political priorities has sparked interbranch conflict. Furthermore, the Trump Administration is continuing to forward an argument it’s frequently relied upon thus far – that courts have no role to play in adjudicating disputes between the legislative and executive. The true parameters of this legal case are thus ill-defined at this moment, and the ultimate precedent which may be established could extend far beyond the confines of environmental regulations alone.

President Trump’s desperate desire to erect a border on the border between the United states and Mexico has already generated plenty of domestic and international controversy alike. According to data compiled and presented by Gallup, a solid majority of Americans opposes the construction of the wall, but it remains a key priority of the Republican voters who empowered President Trump and his congressional colleagues in the first place.

  1. A legal battle over EPA funding

The Environmental Protection Agency plays a crucially important role when it comes to a wide host of environmental issues, but the latest legal dispute centered on the organization has to do with funding. According to preliminary information we have on the case, we can expect the Physicians for Social Responsibility to face off against Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the EPA. The fight is being waged because of new internal EPA regulations which prohibit agency scientists who sit on its panels from receiving EPA grants to fund their research interests.

The side representing the EPA scientists effectively says that the new regulation simply isn’t needed, as existing ethics rules ensure that scientists should recuse themselves in situations where a conflict of interest could lead to dubious outcomes. These scientists can’t rely on companies to privately fund their research – instead, they need access to EPA grants which they’re presently prohibited from due to their sitting on EPA panels.

Scientists who want to access EPA grants in order to fund their research presently can’t sit on certain EPA panels because of the new regulation. While they’re legally arguing that this regulation is frivolous and harmful to the agency, the agency itself claims they lack legal standing to bring the lawsuit in the first place.

Any legal dispute involving the EPA is likely to garner public attention given the extent to which the agency has been featured in media coverage during the Trump Administration. The president recently proposed slashing the EPA budget by upwards of 31 percent, for instance, in a move that generated a national debate over the agency and the amount of funding it should receive from the federal government. This specific legal dispute is more oriented around the internal rewarding of EPA grants to scientists who also sit on important EPA panels, but the general theme will likely attract at least some public attention.

  1. Bundy v. Sessions will ignite national controversy

If there’s one court case being considered by the D.C. Circuit that will ignite national controversy, it’s likely the case of Bundy v. Sessions, which will see Nevada Rancher Ryan Bundy attempt to prove that the Bureau of Land Management and FBI violated his constitutional rights. The Bureau of Land Management claims that the Bundy family was grazing its cattle on public land, and that as a consequence of such grazing it owed unpaid debts to the federal government. The Bundy family disputed that the federal government has authority over public lands, an extraordinarily bold legal stance that was incredibly controversial at the time. The Bundy’s eventually won their case when a mistrial was declared and the charges against them were dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct.

It was an extraordinarily high-profile case as it fed into cultural disputes regarding where the federal government does and doesn’t have authority. Historically speaking, many conservatives and citizens in Western states in particular have argued that the federal government’s authority over various things – such as public land – is subordinate to state and local practices. While the federal government seldom agrees with such claims, certain instances such as the Bundy’s mistrial have enabled those claims to endure for years.

Ryan Bundy, one of the sons of Cliven Bundy who was at the heart of the conflict, is arguing that the FBI and Bureau of Land Management violated his right in the pursuit of uncollected grazing debts. Insisting that the debts are inherently illegitimate, the Bundy’s are effectively arguing that the federal government cannot impose its authority on ranchers in similar situations in the future. Arguing that the government is prejudiced against his Mormon faith, Bundy is making a legal case which could establish a precedent in federal land management cases for years to come.

An extraordinarily controversial political movement, the Bundy family’s decision to stand off against federal authorities drew peculiar headlines around the world. The Washington Post labeled the militia “occupiers” of federal land while the New York Times called them “armed activists.” Critics of the Bundys labeled them domestic terrorist, a term they vehemently disputed, but a judge ruled that prosecutors arguing against the Bundys were indeed allowed to use testimony from an expert in extremism and domestic terrorism during a trial.

The case is inherently concerned with environmental issues like land management, but other important legal disputes surrounding government power are also at play here. The Bundy’s armed standoff with federal authorities has been considered one of the largest uprising against the federal government in decades. According to a report on the standoff issued by NPR, it also played a crucial role in the New Militia Movement spreading across the American West.

  1. A legal squabble over hunting trophies

Finally, we can expect a major legal squabble over hunting trophies to hit the D.C. Circuit in the foreseeable future. The Trump Administration made it easier for hunters to import hunting trophies after venturing abroad to hunt exotic prey like elephants. Originally, the Obama Administration placed a ban on elephant-related trophy imports due to widespread concern about the possible extinction of various elephant species. Facing a dwindling number of elephants in the wild, such a regulation was seen as necessary to preserve the species.

The Trump Administration overturned the rule, however, which immediately generated a legal challenge from the environmentalist groups the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to a press release put out by those groups, the repeal of the Obama-era trophy ban endangers elephants and tigers in Zimbabwe. The Trump Administration put a hold on the repeal of the regulation following public backlash, but the environmental groups in question seek a more permanent and serious legal rebuke of the decision.

This particular case is likely to go viral and catch the public’s attention due to the optics surrounding the legal dispute. Unlike many environmental issues which are only followed by ardent environmentalists and legal scholars, the issue of trophy hunting and animal well being is somewhat more familiar and accessible to the public and has even been at the spotlight of political controversy in recent years. According to one writer from National Geographic, public opinion began to turn against trophy hunting following the well-publicized killing of Cecil the Lion by an American dentist back in 2015.

A report from Wisconsin Public Radio illustrates that public opinion on such issues as trophy hunting and the conservation of certain endangered animals can be deeply impacted by media coverage. There are also reasons to believe that the Trump Administration made major changes to how it intended to approach policy on trophy hunting following a public outcry against its stance.

For example, the Trump Administration announced the creation of an International Wildlife Conservation Council that was heavily composed of trophy hunters, celebrity hunting guides, and representatives from rifle manufacturers, according to USA Today. Some members of the council also had professional, economic, or social connections to members of the Trump family, further exacerbating public anger. Following public controversy in the wake of the report about the council, the Trump Administration ultimately disbanded the council and hasn’t since made any major moves when it comes to policies on trophy hunting. 

Other cases are sure to come This is only a small sample of what the D.C. Circuit may end up involving itself with – other cases are sure to come, and public controversies will have a huge part to play in determining the ultimate political outcomes of many environmental issues. It’s nevertheless important to pay attention to key cases which are likely to attract plenty of the court’s attention, as the precedent established by some of these cases could itself be disputed within a short period of its enactment. With global climate change rising on the list of priorities for most voters around the world, we can expect more environmental legal issues to sprout up sooner rather than later.