Case watch: the Lake Erie Bill of Rights battle ends
Written by Peggy Kirk Hall and Ellen Essman
In the not-too-surprising news category, a federal court has invalidated the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) that Toledo residents passed last year to recognize and protect legal rights for Lake Erie. What is surprising, however, is how the court reached its decision to strike down LEBOR, even in the wake of a law passed by the Ohio legislature in July of 2019 that denies legal standing to nature and prevents a person from bringing a court action on behalf of nature or any ecosystem.
The verdict came exactly one year after Drewes Farm Partnership filed its federal lawsuit to prevent enforcement of LEBOR a day after Toledoans passed the measure. Drewes Farm asserted that LEBOR violated the farm’s rights under the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Drewes Farm also argued that LEBOR exceeded the City of Toledo’s authority because it usurped the power of the state and the federal government by interfering with international relations, invalidating state and federal permits, invalidating state law, altering the rights of corporations, and creating new causes of action in state courts. In April 2019, the state of Ohio joined the lawsuit as a fellow plaintiff. Proponents of LEBOR unsuccessfully attempted to join in the litigation.
Did the plaintiffs have the right to bring the case?
The opinion begins with the court’s “standing” analysis. Toledo argued that Drewes Farm and Ohio did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit against the City. Legal standing requires that a plaintiff (1) suffers an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Failing to meet the legal standing requirement would force dismissal of the lawsuit. Without a finding in favor of legal standing, the court wouldn’t be able to determine LEBOR’s validity.
The central issue in whether the parties had legal standing was the injury in fact requirement, according to the court. To challenge LEBOR, the plaintiffs must demonstrate “concrete and particularized” injury that is “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” The court determined that the state of Ohio met this requirement because it suffered an injury, “at least on paper,” from LEBOR’s invalidation of Ohio laws, regulations, licenses and permits and because the state “could” be sued under LEBOR. The judge also found that Drewes Farm demonstrated injury in fact since any Toledo resident “could” sue the farm for violating LEBOR.
In its brief attention to the second component of standing, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, the court determined that the potential injuries were traceable to Toledo because its city charter was amended by voters to include the LEBOR language. Even though the City itself did not legislatively enact LEBOR, had actually attempted to keep the issue off the ballot due to concerns that it was unconstitutional, and had not indicated any intent to enforce LEBOR, the court concluded that “the City is a proper defendant in the suit.” The court also found that invalidating LEBOR would redress the plaintiffs’ injuries, the final requirement for legal standing.
LEBOR violates due process
The court next directly examined only one of the many constitutional claims against LEBOR, the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process, and specifically focused on one element of due process: clarity of the law. The court stated that if a law is vague and unclear, it can “trap the innocent by not providing fair warning and invite arbitrary enforcement by prosecutors, judges, and juries.” Pointing to language in LEBOR such as the right of Lake Erie and its watershed to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and Toledoans’ right to a “clean and healthy environment,” the court questioned what type of conduct would violate the broad language and how a judge or jury would determine the line between “clean and unclean and healthy and unhealthy.” Spreading even a small amount of fertilizer could possibly violate LEBOR, the court said, as well as countless other activities such as catching fish, pulling weeds, planting corn, or driving a gas-powered vehicle. Not surprisingly, the court concluded that the language is void for vagueness. While LEBOR’s language sounds powerful, the court explained, it has no practical meaning, contains merely “aspirational statements” rather than rules of law, and violates constitutional due process.
What about other constitutional claims?
The court surprisingly didn’t tackle the many other constitutional issues raised by Drewes Farm and the State. But in its “severability” analysis, the court did briefly touch on the constitutionality of LEBOR’s preemption of state and federal laws. LEBOR contains a severability clause stating that a determination of one part of LEBOR as invalid does not invalidate the remaining parts of LEBOR. According to the court, this severability clause is valid only if the constitutional and unconstitutional parts of LEBOR are capable of separation and can stand by themselves. The court concluded that once the vague rights are stripped away, the remaining parts of LEBOR are meaningless.
The court then took the opportunity to note that LEBOR’s attempt to preempt Ohio law in the name of environmental protection would fail on its own merits. Lake Erie’s health falls well beyond Toledo’s authority and rights to govern its internal affairs, and enacting laws that conflict with Ohio law is a “textbook example of what municipal government cannot do,” said the court.
Protecting Lake Erie is a worthy goal
In a slightly sympathetic nod to LEBOR supporters “frustrated by the status quo,” the court notes that using a democratic process to protect Lake Erie is a well-intentioned goal but LEBOR simply fails to achieve the goal. Careful drafting by Toledoans could result in valid legislation that would reduce water pollution, the court explains, while highlighting an ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin that restricted the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers in the city and withstood a legal challenge.
It comes as no surprise
Echoing what many had already concluded, the court criticized LEBOR’s authors for ignoring legal principals and constitutional limitations and stated that LEBOR’s invalidation should come as no surprise. “This is not a close call,” the court says. “LEBOR is unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio. It is therefore invalid in its entirety.”
LEBOR has met the end of its road, but it never really stood a chance of actual enforcement due to its clearly unconstitutional language. LEBOR’s proponents often claimed that the purposes of LEBOR were to gain more attention to Lake Erie’s poor water quality and to push the concept of recognizing legal rights for nature and ecosystems a bit further down the road. Were they successful? Will Toledoans give up, or will they regroup and carefully draft new legislation to protect their water?
Farmers in Ohio now have absolute certainty that they will not be sued for violating Lake Erie’s “rights,” but such a lawsuit never really stood a chance of actual success due to LEBOR’s clearly unconstitutional language. And let’s not forget the new language in Ohio Revised Code §2305.01 stating that “nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas; no person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas; and no person shall bring an action in any court of common pleas against a person who is acting on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem.”
And what about Lake Erie’s water quality? New voluntary programs are rolling out from Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio plan. But many claim that more forceful measures are necessary. Other litigation over the lake’s water quality lingers, and Ohio has listed the Western Lake Erie Basin as “impaired” and must develop a plan to address Total Maximum Daily Loads of pollutants in the lake. It’s no surprise that even though it’s the end of the road for LEBOR, conflicts over solving Lake Erie’s water quality problems will continue.