Authors recommend changes to state law to make it easier for Marylanders
to enforce environmental laws and regulations in court
BALTIMORE, MD — The Maryland General Assembly should enact a comprehensive set of environmental laws that provide Marylanders greater access to state courts and provide greater recourse for communities seeking to enforce state environmental laws and remedy environmental harms. These recommendations and more are included in a new policy brief by Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and the Center for Progressive Reform.
In the United States, courts are a core component of the system established to address the dangers that pollution poses to the environment and people’s health. While legislatures have passed laws expanding protections for the environment, executive agencies have often proven unwilling or unable to properly implement and enforce these laws. Because of this, the public is left to appeal to the legal system to ensure environmental laws protect people and the environment and hold violators accountable.
To enforce environmental laws in court, however, an individual needs to have both a cause of action — a legal claim they can bring in court — and standing to sue — meaning they are the appropriate party to bring the claim. How people meet these requirements varies between federal and state courts and from state to state, creating a perplexing patchwork of standards that get in the way of ensuring everyone has access to clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment.
“Establishing standing to bring an environmental case can be an especially confusing and difficult obstacle to overcome,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake and co-author of Standing Last in Line: The Hurdles to Bringing Environmental Accountability Lawsuits in Maryland. “Some states, including Maryland, have set up especially high barriers to filing environmental cases in their courts.”
The brief’s authors note that the Maryland General Assembly passed the Maryland Environmental Standing Act decades ago to try to address the state’s environmental standing problems. Unfortunately, state agencies and courts have largely ignored the ineffectual law.
“Marylanders face unnecessary and harmful barriers to our legal system that prevent them from vindicating their rights and protecting their communities,” said co-author Evan Isaacson, senior attorney and director of research at Chesapeake Legal Alliance. “In recent decades, state lawmakers fixed numerous environmental problems by passing major bills, but few of these bills have bolstered Marylanders’ environmental rights or dealt with this inadequate access to justice.”
To help make it easier for Marylanders to enforce environmental laws and rules, the brief’s authors recommend that the General Assembly enact comprehensive environmental laws that provide greater access to state courts. More specifically, Maryland should:
- Create new rights to allow Marylanders to enforce violations of state pollution laws and ensure state residents have no less access to state courts than they have in federal courts;
- Expand the use of federal standards of environmental standing in Maryland, which are far less restrictive than Maryland’s standards; and
- Modernize and improve the Maryland Environmental Standing Act to revive its original purpose and give effect to the General Assembly’s initial intent.
“As a new governor takes office, the General Assembly will have a unique opportunity to strengthen Marylanders’ environmental rights in upcoming legislative sessions,” said Katlyn Schmitt, senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform and a co-author of the brief. “Lawmakers should act quickly and fix the state’s environmental standing problems once and for all.”
The policy brief was made possible by funding from the Abell Foundation.