DENVER (CN) – The gushing voice of the Colorado River will not be heard in court any time in the near future, after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Monday aimed at establishing personhood and constitutional rights for the ecosystem.
Filed in September with environmental group Deep Green Resistance listed as one of the river’s next friends, the lawsuit against the state of Colorado sought to give the Colorado River ecosystem the same constitutional protections offered to ships, ecclesiastic corporations and standard commercial corporations.
Though the river’s self-appointed attorney asked to have the case dismissed, he does not consider the cause dried up.
“The undersigned continues to believe that the doctrine provides American courts with a pragmatic and workable tool for addressing environmental degradation and the current issues facing the Colorado River,” attorney Jason Flores-Williams wrote in the motion to dismiss. “That said, the expansion of rights is a difficult and legally complex matter. When engaged in an effort of first impression, the undersigned has a heightened ethical duty to continuously ensure that conditions are appropriate for our judicial institution to best consider the merits of a new canon.”
In his brief withdrawal, Flores-Williams alludes to the 1972 Supreme Court Case Sierra Club v. Morton, in which Justice William Douglas famously dissented that nature should have standing in environmental lawsuits. If ships and corporations have legal standing, Douglas opined, then “so it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.”
Douglas continued: “The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fish, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”
While Flores-Williams acknowledges his case had little impact on the legal system, he believes it brought Douglas’ doctrine back to national attention.
“Before this, if you said ‘rights of nature,’ people would have asked you what you are talking about,” he said in an interview. “It was such a challenge to the current status quo, I figured it would be a real uphill battle to get it in the court, but we can use this to launch a movement of the people in the streets.”
Along this vein, Deep Green Resistance seeks to further the rights-of-nature movement – though its exchanges with the state of Colorado in the river’s case indicate the going may be turbulent.
In a Nov. 16 letter, a Colorado assistant attorney general warned Flores-Williams to voluntarily request to dismiss the case with prejudice or face sanctions for knowingly presenting false or unwarranted claims to the court. The state followed up with a second motion to dismiss the suit last week, arguing a lack of constitutional standing, the complaint was based on "hypothetical future injuries," and only Congress can appoint individuals to represent the river.
Two days later, Flores-Williams moved to dismiss his case, which the court granted Monday without further comment.
“I do not doubt the personal convictions of those groups and individuals who claimed to speak on behalf of the ecosystem,” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said in a statement. “However, the case itself unacceptably impugned the state’s sovereign authority to administer natural resources for public use, and was well beyond the jurisdiction of the judicial branch of government. After my office presented counsel with these and other realities, he readied and wisely chose to withdraw the case.”
Flores-Williams is back making his weekly trek into the mountains, and though this case is closed he says his work is far from done.
“I believe it’s the role of lawyers to challenge the system,” he said. “And I’m proud to be part of the tradition. It’s naive to believe there won’t be pushback, but I’m not going away.”