Should the U.S.Have Specialized Environmental Courts?

Posted on November 26, 2012 by Catherine R. McCabe

The creation of specialized environmental courts and tribunals around the world has exploded in recent years as countries grapple with the increasingly complex challenges of environmental problems and laws.  There are now over 360 environmental courts or tribunals in 42 countries (see George and Catherine Pring, “Greening Justice: Creating and Improving Environmental Courts and Tribunals”), and the Journal of Court Innovation, vol. 3, Winter 2010.  Is it time for us to consider this option in the U.S.?

The U.S. Judicial Conference noted in its 1990 Report that specialized courts are considered “exotic in the American legal culture” and that “most American lawyers find the idea of specialized courts repugnant.”  However, the U.S. uses specialized courts to deal with other complex and specialized fields of law (e.g., U.S. Tax Court, Bankruptcy Courts, U.S. Court of Federal Claims).  A few specialized environmental courts and tribunals have operated successfully in the U.S. since the early 1990’s, including the Vermont Superior Court Environmental Division (1990), local courts such as the Shelby County, Tennessee Environmental Court (1991), and administrative tribunals such as the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (1992).

Specialized courts arguably offer several advantages for judges, parties and practitioners, including greater judicial expertise in complex legal, scientific and technical areas, more efficient adjudication, reduced litigation costs, and more predictable decision-making.  Potential disadvantages and challenges include the costs to set up and maintain a separate system, organize and locate the court(s) to assure convenient access for parties, potentially inefficient caseloads due to inadequate or unevenly distributed cases, and the risk of court “capture” by either environmental activists or industry.  See U.S. Judicial Conference 1990 Report at 18-20.

ACOEL members are uniquely qualified and situated to offer valuable insight into this important question for the future of environmental law and litigation in the U.S.  Should we consider creating more specialized environmental courts or tribunals in the U.S.? 

What do you think?