Dormant for Decades, the Environmental Rights Amendment of Pennsylvania's Constitution Recently Received a Spark of Life from Robinson Township v. Commonwealth
24 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2014 Last revised: 30 Sep 2015
Date Written: June 9, 2014
In the wake of Pennsylvania’s coal revolution, voters took to the polls in 1971 expressing a unified vow not to repeat the environmental mistakes of their industrious-minded forefathers. What resulted was the Environmental Rights Amendment to Pennsylvania’s Constitution. It guaranteed the people’s "right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment" and affirmed that "public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come." The Amendment was the most powerful affirmation of citizens’ rights to environmental protection in the United States — perhaps even a bit too powerful for its time.
Over the years, Pennsylvania courts gave little constitutional effect to the Amendment’s plain meaning, treating it instead as a broad policy statement whose true activation as a constitutional right might require further action from the General Assembly. However, after lying in suspended animation for forty-three years, Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment recently received a spark of life from a plurality of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In a landmark decision, Robinson Township v. Commonwealth employed the Environmental Rights Amendment — for the first time since its inception — to strike down three provisions of a Pennsylvania statute as unconstitutional.
Section II.A of this survey first details the three challenged provisions Act 13. Section II.B then outlines Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment, including the historical context of its passage and the past jurisprudence that diminished the Amendment’s purpose. Section III then highlights the facts of Robinson Township, including its procedural history, the parties’ arguments and its final treatment by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Section IV subsequently evaluates the impact of that landmark decision and suggests a potentially vast sea-change in the way future courts assess claims under the Environmental Rights Amendment, namely that the plurality’s textual interpretation of the Amendment may revitalize its promise as a true constitutional right to environmental protection. In conclusion, section V argues that the plurality’s interpretation and prescribed application of the Amendment is in accordance with the intent of the legislators and ratifying voters who were responsible for its enactment.
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