In collaboration with students at the University of Michigan Law School, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has updated its online Green Gavels tool. When a Michigan Supreme Court case concerns an environmental issue, the scoring tool rates the justices’ decision on the case either green, yellow or red, based on how it impacts the environment.
“We want our Supreme Court legal system to be independent from political influence of all kinds and not independent from the best ideas and public desire for cleaner land, air and water,” says Nick Occhipinti, Michigan LCV’s Grand Rapids-based government affairs director.
A green gavel indicates a decision that was good for the environment, a red gavel means not only was the decision bad for the environment, but the justices could have chosen to rule differently. Yellow gavels indicate either that the issue had no impact on the environment, was bad but decided upon precedent or an unrelated issue, or was bad but based correctly on the existing law.
“It’s an opportunity for the public to gain better access to information that is not easily available. [The Green Gavel] is shining a bright light on what the Michigan Supreme Court is doing,” Occhipinti says. “The state Supreme Court is a third, coequal branch of the government.”
One case the Michigan LCV followed was Henry v. Dow Chemical. A unanimous 2018 Michigan Supreme Court decision reversed the lower courts and prevented residents from bringing lawsuits when negative health issues caused by pollution do not develop until after the existing statute of limitations had passed.
“Now it is harder for property owners to bring suits,” Occhipinti says. “Because we’re active in the legislative arena and connected to the legal realm, with this tool, we can put the pieces together. [We can] say, ‘Hey, folks, this legislation is critically important because it closes this legal gap.’ In this case, the statute of limitations, but pick your issue.”
Originally launched in 2012, Michigan LCV’s Green Gavels scored environmental cases from 1980-2012. The update adds cases from 2012-2020 and tracks scores for current justices. Cases and justices’ scores are updated regularly. Currently, the website reports that Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack has the most green gavels, seven, while Justice Brian K. Zara has the most red gavels, seven.
“Connection of the legal outcomes at the State Supreme Court, at that highest level, connection to statute and legislative change within the Michigan legislature, that is how we connect to issues,” Occhipinti says. “Finding that there are holes and a legal recourse for protecting [people from] contaminated sites, protecting Michigan’s land, air and water. My job is to improve our legislative policy that will then protect communities.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Michigan League of Conservation Voters