Monday, January 7, 2019

Environmental law's canonical... regulations?

In recent weeks, a few environmental law professors have asked their colleagues to participate in efforts to identify the classic or canonical cases of environmental law.  It's a fun exercise (and the professors who've asked the questions know that; they aren't taking their efforts excessively seriously), but it's made me wonder, still, if there might not be a better question to ask. 

The idea of a canonical environmental law case might be an oxymoron.  After all, with a few constitutional law exceptions like Lujan, most classic environmental law cases interpret statutes, which generally means the case is less important than the statute, which suggests, in turn, that the statutes are really the canon.  But that's kind of boring; if we agree that the environmental law canon is the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, RCRA, and so on, that makes our field sound dull in comparison to fields where cases really have defined the law.  So perhaps, if a canon, to speak metaphorically, includes the giant trees within a forest of law, we should treat the underlying statutory and constitutional framework as the soil out of which those trees grow.

But even if my strained metaphor works, that still doesn't explain why the canon should involve cases.  Cases are good teaching devices, and they do matter, but they're badly overrated.  In many areas of environmental law, regulations have much more reach and importance.  So perhaps the question we professors really should be debating, as we procrastinate class preparation and the final stages of grading, is which environmental regulations make up the field's canon.  

- Dave Owen

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