Donnell “Trip” Van Noppen served Earthjustice as its President from 2008–2018, leading the organization’s staff, board, and supporters to advance its mission of using the courts to protect our environment and people’s health.
After earning degrees from Yale and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Trip clerked for a federal district judge from 1980–82. He then practiced law in Raleigh, NC, from 1982 until 1997, in a litigation practice emphasizing civil rights, employment, environmental, and toxic tort cases.
In 1998, Trip joined the Southern Environmental Law Center and became director of that organization’s Carolinas Office. Both in private practice and at SELC, Trip has handled a variety of environmental cases and cases involving access to the courts.
He was named North Carolina’s “Air Conservationist of the Year” in 1996 and has taught environmental justice as a visiting scholar at Duke University.
From 2005–2007, Trip was Earthjustice’s Vice President for Litigation.
This recollection was written when Trip Van Noppen assumed the new role of President of Earthjustice in 2008.
In 2005, I was thrilled to join Earthjustice in the newly-created position of Vice President for Litigation. I came to the organization because Earthjustice is the premier environmental public interest law organization in the world, dedicated to using the courts to protect the environment and people’s health and to creating a model that other groups can adapt around the globe. What a dream job! I get to work with outstanding attorneys across the organization to help craft the cases and the larger-scale strategies that will achieve the most important and lasting results.
Now, beginning in January 2008, I have become Earthjustice’s President. I still get to work with our outstanding attorneys, and also with the rest of our staff, our board and other supporters, and with other environmental groups to advance our mission of protecting the environment and people’s health. Doing this work at Earthjustice, with its national and international impact, is the opportunity of a lifetime.
How did all this happen? Growing up near the Linville Gorge and the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, I developed both a love of the outdoors and a passion to fighting the economic and social injustices of the segregated South. After college, I joined the staff of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, a venerable citizens’ group in the coalfields of eastern Tennessee, fighting the environmental and community ravages of strip mining. At SOCM, I worked with a public interest lawyer who showed me how a skilled attorney can increase the effectiveness and power of a citizens group battling for the environment and for economic justice, and I returned to North Carolina for law school and a federal court clerkship.
During 15 years in a small progressive practice in Raleigh, I represented community groups, individuals, and labor unions in cases involving voting rights, employment discrimination, and workplace injuries. Representing workers injured by chemical exposures at work led me into a steady stream of cases challenging pesticide misuse, drinking water contamination, and toxic air pollution. Once I was fighting for people injured by polluters’ misconduct, I wanted to use the law to address the causes of those injuries, not only the consequences.
In 1998, I left private practice for the unique opportunity that top quality public interest environmental law organizations provide—to be able to work long term to address the causes of environmental degradation using the strategies that will be most effective. I joined the Southern Environmental Law Center, an outstanding regional counterpart to Earthjustice—founded by an Earthjustice alumnus, in fact—that works in six southeastern states. In eight years there, first as a staff attorney and then as Director of the Carolinas office, I learned a great deal about environmental law and litigation, and also about how organizations like Earthjustice function, grow, and take on ever more important challenges.
Although I loved working on these issues on my home turf, the problems are much bigger than a single state. I wanted to work at the national level so when the Earthjustice opportunity appeared, I didn’t hesitate.
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.