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Levitt Fellow Joshua Agins '07 Working With Cannavo on Supreme Court Research

Studying How Supreme Court Applied Individual Standing to Sue in Environmental Citizen Suits

Posted July 24, 2006

Joshua Agins '07 (Rochester, N.Y.) is working for the environment this summer, though not in the way you might expect. Agins is a Levitt Fellow and with Peter Cannavo, visiting assistant professor of government, is researching how the Supreme Court has applied individual standing to sue in environmental citizen suits. 

"Many defendants in citizen suit cases have questioned the legality of such suits, on the grounds that plaintiffs in these types of suits do not have…standing," or the right to sue. The defendants argue that an individual pursuing a citizen suit is inappropriate because the Constitution only allows the federal government to bring this kind of suit to court.

The Supreme Court's interpretation of this part of the Constitution has changed over the past 30 years, and it is this change which Agins proposes to investigate. He hopes to be able to make some conclusions regarding "the legal status of environmental citizen suits." He plans to start with Sierra Club v. Morton, a 1972 case which allowed "standing to sue very liberally," and examine the change which occurred over the next three decades. Much of this "scaling-back" occurred in the early nineties, but the Supreme Court is again beginning to apply standing more liberally (as in such cases as the 2000 Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw).

There is, Agins explains, "tension between these two cases" and an evident contradiction of opinions. He hopes that this contradiction will illuminate the "current status of the doctrine." Agins also hopes to look at the opinions of the newly-appointed Supreme Court justices and examine what has changed, or "determine how, if at all, their views differ from the justices they replaced."

Based at home, Agins will conduct his research mainly through reading Supreme Court cases and focusing on four or five. He is also corresponding with attorneys with whom he worked last year (Agins is a former participant of the Hamilton program in Washington D.C. where he worked in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division in the Department of Justice). They oversee environmental citizen suits and he says they have been extremely helpful. He may also conduct formal interviews with them later this summer.

Agins' interest in this topic stems directly from his experience on the D.C. program, where he encountered the issue of Supreme Court rulings on citizen environmental suits. He is strongly aware of the importance of these rulings; as he explains, "citizen suits are very important in maintaining the beauty of our natural environment" and "citizens must step in and take action to preserve the environment."

As with many of his peers, Agins plans to use his summer work as a beginning for his senior honors thesis. A first time summer researcher, he is enjoying himself. "It's a great chance to go in depth about something that I am interested in," he says. He is, appropriately, an enthusiastic member of Hamilton Mock Trial and hopes to go on to law school, with a possible focus on environmental law.

The grant which funds his work is the Levitt Research Fellowship, given by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. This grant is intended to fund research in a public affairs issue and allows a student to spend 10 weeks working closely with a faculty advisor.

-- Lisbeth Redfield


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