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Prof. David Uhlmann 

Prof. Uhlmann named "Conservation Champion"

By John Masson
Oct. 4, 2012

Michigan Law professor David Uhlmann has been named one of two 2012 "Conservation Champions" by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

The award, given Tuesday night at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, recognized the work of Prof. Uhlmann and Michigan Law students in creating the Green Gavels database, a comprehensive ranking of Michigan's Supreme Court justices based on their voting records in environmental matters, which came online earlier this year. Also honored with the award was Tom Buhr, who helped define and finance the effort in time for the November election.

"Dr. Buhr was instrumental in the project's concept, direction, and funding, and Prof. Uhlmann was indispensible to its scope, research, and implementation," said Lisa Wozniak, director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. "Thanks to [them], Michigan LCV is pioneering a way for citizens to understand the environmental impact of their elected state Supreme Court justices."

Law students who participated in the Green Gavels project under Prof. Uhlmann's supervision researched and wrote neutral summaries of every environmental case that reached the Michigan Supreme Court over the last 30 years. Staffers from Michigan LCV then assigned the decisions—and the opinions of the individual judges—green, yellow, or red gavels, depending on whether the decisions were favorable, neutral, or unfavorable to the environment.

The resulting ratings were then peer-reviewed by an advisory board of lawyers from around the state.

Prof. Uhlmann said the panels took great care to ensure that justices couldn't receive a red gavel simply for following the law. If the law in the case 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.

Uhlmann, the Jeffrey F. Liss Professor from Practice and the director of Michigan Law's Environmental Law and Policy Program, said the law students and Michigan LCV staffers who did the research made the project happen.

"It's a great honor to be recognized by such an outstanding organization, and a tribute to everybody involved in the Green Gavels project," Prof. Uhlmann said. "But the real beneficiaries are the citizens of our state. This is an election year. Without a project like Green Gavels, judicial elections can devolve into popularity contests or choices that are remarkably uninformed."

Instead, Michigan voters can go to the voting booth armed with facts about incumbent justices' views in a field of law that's likely to remain at the forefront of litigation in the Michigan Supreme Court.

"Supreme Court justices are not like other elected officials, in that they don't cast legislative votes or implement new laws the way governors do," Uhlmann said. "But they make decisions that affect public health and the environment that can be influenced by their judicial philosophies and how they approach legal issues—all of which has real consequences for our state and our country."

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