Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 23

(Americanspirit/Dreamstime)

1971—In Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee v. Atomic Energy Comm’n, D.C. Circuit judge J. Skelly Wright enthusiastically welcomes “what promises to become a flood of new litigation—litigation seeking judicial assistance in protecting our natural environment”:

Several recently enacted statutes attest to the commitment of the government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material “progress.” But it remains to be seen whether the promise of this legislation will become a reality. Therein lies the judicial role. In these cases, we must for the first time interpret the broadest and perhaps most important of the recent statutes: the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. We must assess claims that one of the agencies charged with its administration has failed to live up to the congressional mandate. Our duty, in short, is to see that important legislative purposes, heralded in the halls of Congress, are not lost or misdirected in the vast hallways of the federal bureaucracy. [Emphasis added.]

In a 1983 law-review article, then-D.C. Circuit judge Antonin Scalia will identify Calvert Cliffs as having “beg[u]n the judiciary’s long love affair with environmental litigation” and will contrast Wright’s nearly boundless conception of the judicial role with the much more modest understanding set forth in Marbury v. Madison. Further, as Scalia observes, Wright doesn’t even bother to explain what the Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee is and how it has standing to challenge the agency’s action:

From reading the opinion, one is unable to discern whether the Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee, which brought construction of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear generating plant to a halt, was composed of environmentalists, or owners of land adjacent to the proposed plant, or competing coal-generating power companies, or was even, perish the thought, a front for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is reputed to prefer dams to atoms.

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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