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Sotomayor’s Environmental Record

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor are scheduled for July, and Americans are scrutinizing her record for clues to her judicial thinking. One area that’s received little attention in media is Judge Sotomayor’s record on environmental cases.


Asbestos contamination of the environment is a critical issue for communities around the country. Some of this has been caused by manufacturing and mining, and some comes from discarded asbestos-containing products or decaying buildings with asbestos insulation. Exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma and other severe diseases.

If her nomination is confirmed, Justice Sonia Sotomayor could play a pivotal role in environmental cases affecting the health and well-being of Americans for decades to come. As a Judge on the Second Circuit, Sotomayor has ruled in only a handful of environmental cases. On the whole, however, environmental advocates and lawyers are cautiously optimistic about Sotomayor’s nomination.

Her best-known environmental case is Riverkeeper v. USEPA, 475 F.3d 83, 2007, which recently was reversed by the current Supreme Court. The question in front of the Second Circuit Court was whether the Environmental Protection Agency could consider cost-effectiveness in deciding what measures to use to protect fish and life in rivers and lakes near power plants. Sotomayor argued that the Clean Water Act stipulates use of the “best technology available” to protect aquatic life. Therefore, she said, the EPA is charged with using the best technology to protect wildlife.

Green activists are less pleased with Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., Inc.. This case involves a suit against a consortium of electric power producers, charging that their carbon emissions are a public nuisance. The Second Circuit Court heard the case three years ago, but the Court has not issued an opinion.

Other cases:

New York v. National Service Industries, 460 F.3d 201 (2006). New York sued a company to recover costs of cleaning up a hazardous waste site. Sotomayor and the Court of Appeals sided with the company, which was only loosely related to the company that had created the environmental hazard.

Environmental Defense v. USEPA, 369 F.3d 193 (2004). An environmental group challenged the EPA’s approval of New York’s plan for air quality standards for ozone pollution. Sotomayor and the Second Circuit rejected the challenge.

Natural Resources Defense Council v. Abraham, 355 F.3d 179 (2003). Some states and environmental groups had challenged the Bush Administration’s reduction of national energy conservation standards for appliances. Sotomayor and the Second Circuit sided with the environmentalists.

Barbara O’Brien
June 10, 2009

2 Responses to “Sotomayor’s Environmental Record”

  1. For Greens, 0-5 in Court | Mesothelioma and the Politics of Asbestos Litigation Says:

    [...] Corp. v. Riverkeeper, which reversed a decision of the Second Circuit Court, a panel that includes Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. In this case, the Supreme Court decided the Clean Water Act allows the Environmental Protection [...]

  2. The Un-Greening of the Supreme Court | Mesothelioma and the Politics of Asbestos Litigation Says:

    [...] a judge of the Second Circuit Court, Sotomayor has heard only a few environmental cases. Even so, Sotomayor’s environmental record is generally encouraging to [...]