NewYorkUniversity
LawReview

Issues

Author

Katherine A. Rouse

Results

Holding the EPA Accountable: Judicial Construction of Environmental Citizen Suit Provisions

Katherine A. Rouse

What happens when a presidential administration fails or refuses to properly administer our nation’s environmental laws? Thanks to the design of our federal environmental statutes, American citizens are armed with a valuable legal tool to hold the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accountable: the citizen suit. Environmental citizen suits allow private citizens to sue the EPA to require it to carry out its statutory duties, and can be a valuable mechanism in the face of a presidential administration unsympathetic to environmental protection. Because citizen suit provisions allow citizens to sue the EPA Administrator for failing to perform an action or duty that is nondiscretionary under the statute, the permissibility of lawsuits frequently turns on judicial interpretation of the term “nondiscretionary duty.” There is currently a split across the federal courts as to how to construe this term. In fact, the case law on this topic has become somewhat muddled, with disparities arising among district courts and few courts of appeal ruling conclusively on the issue. Some courts have narrowed the term, thereby limiting opportunities for citizen suits. A primary disagreement is whether the presence of the word “shall” in a statutory provision is sufficient to impose a nondiscretionary duty or whether more is required. Some courts have determined that a duty is discretionary unless the provision also includes a “date-certain” deadline, requiring the Administrator to perform the prescribed action by a specific date that appears within that part of the statute. Other courts have resisted adopting a bright-line rule requiring a date-certain deadline before imposing a nondiscretionary duty on the Administrator. The Supreme Court has not spoken on this date-certain deadline rule. This Note will explore how courts have interpreted the term nondiscretionary duty in environmental citizen suit provisions. This Note argues that the federal judiciary as a whole should abandon the date-certain deadline rule and side with courts that construe nondiscretionary duty more broadly. This reading can be supported legally, and will ensure that citizens are able to sue to compel EPA action even when a presidential administration fails to carry out important environmental laws and regulations.