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Green Gavels

Green Gavels project presents 30+ years of Michigan Supreme Court decisions affecting the environment

By John Masson
May 21, 2012

A comprehensive evaluation of every environmental decision made by the Michigan Supreme Court in the last 30 years has yielded the first online reference tool of its kind, a web guide that lets Michigan voters see at a glance how each court decision affected the environment.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) created the "Green Gavels" online reference tool as a learning aid for Michigan voters. Students at the University of Michigan Law School, led by Environmental Law & Policy Program founding director, Prof. David Uhlmann, researched each case and wrote summaries of each one that fell into the categories of conservation or the environment.

Those summaries were then reviewed by Michigan LCV attorneys and a bipartisan panel, which applied red, yellow, or green gavels to indicate the conservation impact of each decision and each justice's opinion on it.

"Green Gavels pulls back the heavy velvet curtains that have surrounded the Michigan Supreme Court for so long and allows citizens to look objectively at how each decision impacts our air, land, and water," said Michigan LCV Executive Director Lisa Wozniak.

Uhlmann, the former top environmental prosecutor for the Justice Department, said the project will help voters understand court decisions.

"Judicial decisions play a significant role in environmental protection by ensuring that our environmental laws are properly implemented," Uhlmann said. "The Green Gavels project will provide greater understanding about the role in the decision of the courts in our environmental law system and enable citizens to make choices that better reflect their environmental values."

The Michigan students didn't participate in the rating process, and the Law School takes no position on any of the justices' votes. The students instead researched each case and wrote a neutral summary. Those neutral narratives were reviewed by staff attorneys from the Michigan LCV, and they rated each case—and each justice's vote on each case—as environmentally positive, neutral, or negative.

Those ratings were then further reviewed by an outside, bipartisan panel.

Uhlmann said the panels took great care to ensure that, when a negative "red gavel" was assigned to a justice's vote, it had been earned. If the law was clear and a justice cast a vote supporting that law, and environmental harm resulted, the fault was with the law itself, not the jurist. In short, the justice couldn't receive a red gavel for simply following the law.

"The law has limits," Uhlmann said. "You shouldn't be giving a red gavel to somebody for getting it right. You should give someone a red gavel for doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons."

The Green Gavels tool means the state's judiciary has joined the governor and the legislature on the Michigan LCV website, where those bodies' environmental and conservation records are also reviewed.

"While our students had no role in deciding whether a particular case received a green, yellow, or red rating, the project could not have happened without the efforts of the Michigan Law students," Uhlmann said. "They researched more than 30 years of decisions to identify cases that had an impact on environmental protection and conservation efforts," Uhlmann said. "Their research and the summaries they prepared are the heart of the Green Gavels project."

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