Earthjustice filed its opening brief today challenging a Florida law that severely restricts the rights of ordinary citizens to dispute government decisions that affect their environment.
The highly unpopular bill passed in the final hours of the last legislative session, after being cobbled together with an unrelated bill that was likely to pass. The suit, filed on behalf of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and Manasota 88, claims that the law violates the Florida Constitution because it deals with two unrelated topics.
“This law seeks specifically to favor the interests of large corporations over the ordinary Floridian,” said David Guest of Earthjustice. “All citizens have the right to question their government, and we don’t intend to let an unconstitutional law take that right away.”
After repeated attempts to get the bill, Senate Bill 270, passed in previous sessions, sponsor Senator Jim King attached it to an Everglades restoration bill that was widely supported. The package was signed into law in May 2002. The Florida Constitution forbids laws that contain more than one subject. According to the groups’ complaint, this rule is intended to protect the public from just this sort of cobbling together of bills that lack support of their own with more popular measures.
“The political connivery used here was completely illegal,” said Guest. “And the law signed as a result has very dangerous implications for the future of environmental protection in Florida.”
The provisions in question limit citizen standing to sue over permits for activities that could affect the environment. To bring a challenge under the new law, citizens have to file suit as incorporated groups of 25 or more in an affected county or as intervenors in already active cases. The permits affected by the law include those for activities like offshore oil drilling. In fact, Earthjustice used the citizen intervention provision five years ago on behalf of Florida Wildlife Federation and other environmental organizations to prevent the state Department of Environmental Protection from granting a permit for offshore oil drilling off the coast of Florida. The Department had attempted to issue the permit. Guest, who handled the successful permit challenge, said that if the proposed amendments had been in effect then, there would be offshore drilling in Florida’s coastal waters today.
“Citizens were the only ones arguing to protect Florida’s coastal waters from drilling,” said Guest. “Stripping citizens of their right to challenge permits that authorize environmentally destructive activities turns the fight to protect the environment into a one-sided debate.”