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Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife—Can Environmental Litigants Regain Ground to Stand on Using the “Ecosystem Nexus” Test for Causation, Redressibility?

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife—Can Environmental Litigants Regain Ground to Stand on Using the “Ecosystem Nexus” Test for Causation, Redressibility?

Sophie Guilfoyle

Pressing environmental issues such as climate change, loss of habitat and biodiversity, overpopulation, and resource shortage involve complex adaptive systems that adhere to ecological principles.[1] While ecological observation has historically been limited to local scales, conceptual and technological advances are now revealing causative relationships in environmental degradation globally.[2] With such advances, it is plausible that ecological causation showing environmental injury will be much more than “pure speculation.”[3] The judiciary’s receptiveness to evolving ecological principles directly affects environmental standing. This Note discusses the possibility of an “ecosystem nexus” acceptable to the federal judiciary that satisfies the Article III standing requirements of causation, traceability, and injury-in-fact.

From the founding of the United States until the 1920s, there was no standing doctrine or historical support for a constitutional limit on Congress’s ability to create legal rights or causes of action.[4] Historically, standing was not such an obstacle for environmental claims in federal courts. However, numerous U.S. Supreme Court cases over the years show the standing issue has become a complicated, unsettled, and multifaceted legal barrier for environmental litigants.­[5]

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife is one of the most influential cases in modern environmental standing jurisprudence. It has been cited by thousands of cases and administrative decisions, not to mention hundreds of scholarly articles on standing.[6] Lujan gained notoriety in the environmental community for restricting environmental litigants’ access to federal courts by heightening Article III standing requirements.[7]

A nexus is “[a] connection or link, often a causal one.”[8] In the standing context, a nexus can show causation between government action (or inaction) and an alleged injury, or it can show how the court can redress the injury with a favorable outcome. In Lujan, respondent Defenders of Wildlife proposed an ecosystem nexus, claiming an injury to their members “who use and enjoy any part of a contiguous ecosystem affected by federal action for purposes of studying or observing endangered species.”[9]

Justice Scalia, writing for a fragmented majority, derided the “series of novel standing theories.”[10] He described the ecosystem nexus theory of causation as “inelegantly styled,” dismissing the notion that harm could result from causative processes in a contiguous ecosystem “even if the activity is located a great distance away.”[11] That the Endangered Species Act protects ecosystems, Scalia reasoned, “is not to say that the Act creates (if it were possible) rights of action in persons who have not been injured in fact, that is, persons who use portions of an ecosystem not perceptibly affected by the unlawful action in question.”[12] Such nexus theories, he wrote, failed to satisfy injury-in-fact.[13]

While Justice Scalia harshly dismissed the nexus standing theories presented by respondents, there is uncertainty among federal courts and scholars alike as to whether Justice Scalia’s dismissal of the “ecosystem nexus” test to establish causation and injury-in-fact is binding or dicta.[14] While Lujan bottlenecked access to federal courts, it did not foreclose the “ecosystem nexus” test as an argument to satisfy Article III standing.

This Note argues that Justice Scalia’s dismissal of the ecosystem nexus to satisfy organizational standing was part of the plurality. With advancing scientific insight into ecological processes and mounting environmental challenges, a well-crafted nexus theory may help environmental litigants regain some ground to stand on in federal courts, and mount more effective challenges to inadequate enforcement of major environmental legislation. Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at LawReview@vermontlaw.edu.


[1] Neil A. Campbell & Jane B. Reece, Biology 1095 (6th ed. 2001).
 
[2] Fred Bosselman, What Lawmakers Can Learn from Large-Scale Ecology, 17 J. Land Use & Envtl. L. 207 (2002).
 
[3] Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 567 (1992).
 
[4] Cass R. Sunstein, What’s Standing After Lujan? Of Citizen Suits, “Injuries,” and Article III, 91 Mich. L. Rev. 163, 170 (1992).
 
[5] See e.g., Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972); Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992); Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 407 U.S. 871.
 
[6] Lujan, 504 U.S. at 555 (1992).
 
[7] See, e.g., Sunstein, supra note 4, at 163; Brandon D. Smith, Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife: A Slash-and-Burn Expedition Through the Law of Environmental Standing, 28 U.S.F. L. Rev. 859 (1994); Tony Ed Monzingo, I Think That I Shall Never See, Standing for a Tree: Or Has the Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife Decision Spelled Doom for Extraterritorial Environmental Standing?, 10 Ariz. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 431 (1993).
 
[8] Nexus, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).
 
[9] Brief for Respondent at 27, Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992) (No. 90-1424).
 
[10] Lujan, 504 U.S. at 565.
 
[11] Id.
 
[12] Id. at 566.
 
[13] Id.
 
[14] Id. at 565–68.

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