Guest Blog: Granting Legal “Standing” to Natural Systems

Following Lu Merritt’s blog about the standing issues raised in the administrative hearing on the proposed MFLs of the Ichetucknee, I am reminded of the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision Sierra Club v. Morton. In that case, Justice William O. Douglas wrote a famous dissent on environmental entities having standing in their own right. The reasoning and rationale of that dissent holds as true or more so today.

Douglas wrote: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” He went on to describe how inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation: for example, ships are granted legal personhood, as are corporations, churches, and trusts. He reasoned,

So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water—whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger—must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction. . . . The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled.

Indeed, if the Ichetucknee, and all of Florida’s rivers and springs, were granted legal standing, in their own right, then someone could speak directly for them, and for the animal and plant species that depend on the health and flow levels of water in the river. People who live near the river and springs and depend on them for livelihood, for recreation, for fishing, and healing of spirit, people who scientifically know what it needs to be healthy to sustain the multiple native species living in the river, these are the people who could be deemed guardians in representing the interests of the river itself.

This administrative hearing dramatizes for us the unfairness and imbalance given to nature and the Ichetucknee when only human economic advantage is considered in determining the how much water should remain in the river. If the river could speak, and if it had standing of its own to be heard in this hearing, what would it say to the parties involved in this determination?

Sister Pat Siemen, OP, JD
Center for Earth Jurisprudence
Barry University School of Law