Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 19

(Photo: Photographerlondon/Dreamstime)

1972—Dissenting from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sierra Club v. Morton that the Sierra Club lacks standing to challenge federal actions regarding a ski development, Justice William O. Douglas proposes “the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” The question of standing “would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded.”

Under Douglas’s rule, these inanimate objects—“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”—would be named parties. “The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.” The “legitimate spokesmen” in court for the inanimate object would be “[t]hose who have [an] intimate relation with the inanimate object.” “Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which [the inanimate object] represents will stand before the court—the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and the bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams.”

Needless to say, Justice Douglas is unconcerned by the massive increase in judicial power that would result from his proposed obliteration of constitutionally rooted restrictions on standing. Concerns about “government by the Judiciary” are insignificant, he says, in light of the inadequacies of Congress (“too remote” and “too ponderous”) and the federal agencies (“notoriously under the control of powerful interests”) in addressing the problem.

2016—Never has a more brazen and aggressive bureaucratic misreading of federal law encountered a more craven and confused judicial reception.

In G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit defers to the Obama administration’s radical claim that federal law requires any school that receives federal funding to make its single-sex restrooms, locker rooms, showers, housing, and sports teams available to “transgender students consistent with their gender identity.” Never mind that the Obama administration never actually interpreted the particular 1975 regulation in the manner that the panel majority imagined it owed deference to. Never mind that assigning facilities and programs on the basis of biological sex disregards—and thus clearly does not discriminate on the basis of—gender identity.

In August the Supreme Court will block the Fourth Circuit’s ruling from taking effect, and in late October it will grant the school board’s certiorari petition. In March 2017—after the incoming Trump administration repudiates the Obama’s reading of federal law—the Court will vacate the Fourth Circuit’s ruling and remand the case for further consideration.

Ed Whelan — Ed Whelan is a leading commentator on nominations to the Supreme Court and the lower courts and on issues of constitutional law.

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