Supreme Court Gives You the Right to Sue the State

Jan 4, 2011

The Michigan Supreme Court says anyone can sue the state if they believe it's acting in a way that harms the environment. 

Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra talked with Nick Schroeck with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to find out what this decision means. He says if a company wants to do something like discharge treated wastewater into a creek or a river, for example, it needs a permit from the state to do so:

“The way our environmental law works, you have to have a permit to pollute, as it were. That means that the state regulates the amount of pollution that’s allowed into the waters of the state.”

A law called the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, or MEPA, makes it possible for someone to sue the state for issuing that permit if they think it harms the environment. But a state Supreme Court ruling in 2004 took a restrictive view of who had the right to sue under that law.

That is, until last week’s ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court, which says anyone with standing can sue under MEPA: 


“Concerned citizens or environmental groups could essentially sue the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment over permitting decisions or failures in their permitting decisions for the state failing to adequately protect the environment.” 

They can sue as long as they are sufficiently affected by the matter at hand.

Schroeck calls it… 


“A good decision for the environment… for now.” 

That’s because the justices voted 4–3 in favor of the more liberal reading of the law. But when conservatives take back the court this month, that decision could be overturned.