Photo via Architect of the Capitol

Pursuit of Justice

The Senate must do its job to provide a fair hearing and a timely vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

There is nothing more fundamental to the health of our environment, or the life of our democracy, than the earnest and faithful pursuit of justice, the measure of how fairly and equitably our society apportions benefits, opportunities, responsibilities, and costs among the greatest share of our people.

We work, all of us, to build a more just world every day, in our homes and communities and on the job. The foundation of that pursuit, though, is the rule of law, the system through which we seek to set boundaries and confer obligations meant to enshrine our common values and collective goals in a set of standards applied equally to all.

That’s a lot to ask of any society anywhere. In a nation of interests as diverse and powerful as our own, that system must be able to resolve disputes in a way that, while seldom fully satisfactory to all of us, is consistently acceptable to most of us. The burden for getting that right rests with our courts. Ultimately, it rests with the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, each duly appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.

The recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a Ronald Reagan appointee who sat on the Supreme Court for 30 years, is a reminder of the influence a single jurist can have on the life of this nation and the pursuit of justice so near to its core. It’s a reminder, too, of the stakes we all share, as Americans and as stewards of our environment, in the quality of our courts and judges at every level.

That’s why our Constitution vests the authority to appoint Supreme Court justices in the president, the only public servant elected to represent all the American people. And it’s why the Constitution provides for “the advice and consent of the Senate” in deciding whether to confirm those appointees.

To Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and other founders, justice, at the highest level, was too important to be left solely to one branch of the government. Both the executive and the legislative branches were assigned essential duties.

President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court. The president has fulfilled his Constitutional duty. Now, it’s time for the Senate to do its job by providing the nominee a fair hearing and a timely vote — and not engage in partisan obstructionism.

A fully functioning Supreme Court is of more than passing interest to NRDC. A sound judiciary goes to the heart of our work. We were founded in 1970 by a group of young attorneys dedicated to the belief that a clean environment and public health required effective legal representation. After all, the industries that were polluting our air and waters, damaging our wildlife and lands, and putting our children’s future at risk all had powerful batteries of lawyers on their side. Someone had to advocate for a healthy planet.

In the decades since, we’ve built a team of scientists to help us understand the threats to our environment and experts to help shape policies that advance our vision of responsible stewardship and sound defense of the natural systems that support us all. We’ve kept faith with our beginnings as an environmental shop grounded in the rule of law, a mission that puts us before the courts across this land when we need to hold industry or government to account for actions and practices that fall short of what our laws require. And we’ve worked to use our laws and courts to help build a more just society overall.

Even as the Supreme Court decided last month to put a temporary freeze on President Obama’s plans to fight climate change by cleaning up our dirty power plants, we were working to make the case for the president’s approach in proceedings before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Those proceedings are moving forward, with oral arguments slated for June and a ruling expected by fall.

We disagree with the high court’s decision to put a hold on the Clean Power Plan. We’re disappointed in that call, and we expect the plan to survive the court challenge on its merits. We will argue that case, though, before the courts and in accordance with our laws.

Protecting our environment is fundamental to our pursuit of justice. And creating a fair and equitable society means answering important legal questions in a fair and equitable way. When we ask who controls our oceans, who has sovereignty over our air, who gets to pollute our drinking water, despoil our fields and streams, and destroy the wildlife that depends on healthy habitat, we’re challenging ourselves and our nation to confront fundamental questions of justice.

In a just and equitable society, who controls the natural systems we all depend on? Who has access to natural resources, and for what purpose? Which resources are to be used for the profit of the few, and which are to be set aside for the renewal of the many? Who bears the burden and pays the cost of pollution that degrades the environment and threatens public health? And, when the time comes to answer these vital questions in any specific dispute, who speaks, who listens, and who decides?

The answers set the stage for our future. They affirm our priorities and values. They say a lot about who we are. Because how we answer these questions speaks not just to the health of our environment, but also to the larger journey we’re embarked on in our quest to build a society that’s fair and just.

Urge your senators to consider President Obama’s judicial nominee in a fair and timely manner.