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Good Judges Center Environmental Justice

Ohio Environmental Council, July 14, 2022

On the last day of June in a 6-3 vote, U.S. Supreme Court judges heavily curtailed the U.S. EPA’s ability to protect all of us from polluters. In the aftermath of the Court’s decision in West Virginia vs. EPA, the need for judges with a strong environmental justice ethic has become more apparent than ever before. Whether a judge sits in state court or federal court, at the appellate level or in a trial court, they must always consider how their decision impacts the environment, public health, and our communities.

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How Judges Can Protect Ohio’s Environment

Judges play an incredibly important role in protecting our environment from polluters. Laws safeguarding our land, air, and water from corporate polluters are only as strong as the judges who interpret them. When polluters are left unaccountable, they often pollute marginalized and disenfranchised communities. 

Strong judges can protect our lands from waste dumping, water from contamination, and air from toxins. They are essential to centering environmental justice in our collective fight to protect Ohio’s land, air, and water for generations to come.

In Massachusetts vs. EPA (2007), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gasses are pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and can be regulated by the EPA. It’s a landmark decision recognizing a federal obligation to take action to mitigate the causes of climate change. The judges deciding Massachusetts vs. EPA appropriately weighed the scientific and legal evidence presented. They kept environmental justice in mind, for climate change will disproportionately impact communities of color across the country, whether from sea level rise, increasing temperatures, or extreme weather.

2022 Ohio Public Interest Environmental Law Conference

We must juxtapose Massachusetts vs. EPA with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia vs. EPA. The Court, made up of new justices than those who ruled in Massachusetts vs. EPA 15 years ago, restricted the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of trusting experts at agencies to understand the science, the Court’s new ruling requires Congress to provide very direct guidance on how the EPA can regulate emissions. This singular decision has impacted communities across the country and—given the global threat of climate change—across the world.

Every Court Hears Environmental Justice Cases

Regardless of the venue—appellate, trial, or supreme court—every court will hear cases directly impacting the environment and health of our communities, whether it’s a case of national significance, like West Virginia vs. EPA, or a judge ruling on an illegal dumping case in a small Ohio town. And with issues like climate change impacting our communities more and more every year, now more than ever, judges must center environmental justice. 

No corporation is above the law, especially when it comes to protecting our health from harmful pollution. Strong judges can hold corporate polluters accountable for the destruction of land, air, and water quality throughout Ohio and the nation. When judges rule with an environmental justice ethic, communities experiencing environmental racism and other systemic harms can more easily empower and create a healthy environment for themselves. 

One way to empower our communities is to learn more about judicial candidates and their ethics before we vote—now, during early voting, or on Election Day in November. Look up candidates for state court as well as nominees for federal court and learn more about their decision-making. Encourage your friends and family to understand the importance of our judiciary when it comes to protecting Ohio’s—and the planet’s—environment.

To spread awareness in local communities about the vital role our judges play in the fight to protect Ohio’s air, land, and water, the Ohio Environmental Council recently published a radio advertisement discussing environmental justice on stations popular with Black listeners. You can listen to the ad here: