Passed in 1963, the Clean Air Act was a landmark piece of environmental legislation in the United States that continues to play an important role in shaping policy today. Among its many accomplishments, it set the stage for the use of citizen lawsuits to enforce environmental legislation, creating a valuable tool for environmentalists. Yet, the history of citizen lawsuits isn’t often explored, which is unfortunate, because it’s actually rather fascinating.
Citizen suits allow members of the public to file suit in a number of different ways to compel the enforcement of legislation. One option is to sue directly for activities that are not allowed under a given statute; for example, the residents of a community with poor air quality could sue a firm that releases toxins into the air if the release rate exceeds allowable limits or venting includes forbidden materials. Without the power of a citizen suit, people would be at the mercy of the government when it comes to enforcing legislation like this, a serious issue with numerous environmental violations and the need to triage to determine how best to allocate resources when it comes to enforcement.
Citizens can also sue government agencies and related entities if they don’t do their jobs as detailed in legislation and policy documentation. The ability to compel agencies to perform specific work is key, especially in an era when policymaking and enforcement is heavily influenced by lobbyists and other outsiders. Individual citizens may lack the clout of lobbyists when it comes to getting into the pockets of officials and representatives, but they can still take the matter to court, demanding that agencies take on polluters and other offenders of the law no matter who they are.
In environmental law, people also sometimes use citizen suits to file for injunctions with the goal of abating or preventing the release of potentially hazardous waste. If citizens are aware a company plans to dump drums of waste material on a given site, for example, it can demand an injunction to stop proceedings until the situation can be reviewed and discussed, even if the company is managing the waste in an entirely legal way. Injunctions create more time for action in situations where the environment or a community may be at risk, and they can be an extremely valuable tool at times.
The roots of citizen suits, however, do not lie in environmental law. They started with the civil rights movement, which began using them to enforce civil rights law when the government was unable or refused to. Such suits continue to be used to enforce legislation, from service dog users demanding access to businesses to disenfranchised voters demanding accountability for fraudulent practices at the polls. Citizen suits represent one aspect of the civil rights movement’s impressive and complex strategy for winning and protecting rights for marginalised members of society, and clearly they were inspirational for at least some members of Congress, who decided to build them into the Clean Air Act.
Many states also picked up the practice, allowing for the diffusion of citizen suits across the United States as a result of the agitation of the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement very directly paved the way for a powerful tool in environmental advocacy, a tool that’s used constantly and often without a larger discussion of where the credit lies, even though civil rights activists use civil suits today and the connections are hard to escape.
Only in some communities do we see explicit connections being made between civil rights and the environment, because these two things are more closely intertwined than many people seem to realise. Some citizen suits have specifically focused on issues like environmental racism, challenging environmental issues on civil rights grounds as well as environmental ones; for example, polluters are more likely to operate in low-income communities of colour, particularly those with a large immigrant population. This is not a coincidence, and it deserves more aggressive examination and prosecution.
The civil rights movement has given much to the United States, including a huge array of activist tools from the radical to the judicial. One thing that made the movement so effective was the broad spectrum of approaches, intended to blanket society with numerous options for supporting the movement while also creating a situation where civil rights became inevitable, even as we still haven’t achieved full equality for all members of society. Civil rights brought about citizen suits, pushed civil disobedience to prominence, and encouraged the development of so many other activist strategies that, when combined, create a multipronged approach that can be ferocious and unstoppable.
To see the government picking up some of those very same strategies in legislation like the Clean Air Act is remarkable, indicating that people clearly recognised the efficacy of the movement even as some of them were actively opposing it. Being a friend to the environment doesn’t necessarily mean you support civil rights, after all. It’s unfortunate to see the civil rights movement glossed over when its tactics are used by other social movements, and it’s also very telling to see how people struggle with crediting the movement. Instead of celebrating the accomplishments of people who fought hard for equality in the US, there seems to be an active investment in suppressing their contributions to society.
Interesting that the Clean Air Act should be heralded for pioneering civil suits in environmental activism, when this tool was itself borrowed from an even older movement.