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04.28.10

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Green Justice

Couple aims to support improved environmental laws around the world

By Juliane Poirier


One doesn't often hear nicknames like Rock and Kitty tossed around in legal circles, but formality is too weighty to lug from courtroom to courtroom in countries around the world. So George (Rock) and Catherine (Kitty) Pring, Colorado law professor and conflict-resolution specialist, respectively, left pretense behind and traveled to gather the best legal recipes for ecological justice.

The result of their global investigation, sponsored by the University of Denver, is a document for use by anyone anywhere, called Greening Justice: Creating and Improving Environmental Courts and Tribunals .

The Prings conducted over 150 interviews with people shaping environmental courts and tribunals (ECTs) in 24 countries. According to their report, ECTs are "established or under consideration on every inhabited continent," and the number has "grown from only a handful in the 1970s to over 350 in 41 countries today."

Rock told the Bohemian , "It's an explosion. More than half of these have been created in the last five years." This growth is due in part to the complexity of environmental law, the growing public concern about resources and the ineffectiveness of traditional courts. In the natural environment, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so traditional law is too rigid, the courts move too glacially to be effective, and the judges are generally inept at comprehending the issues.

"Environmental law has become so complex that it's difficult for a normal person to figure out what to do," explained Rock, who has been an environmental attorney since the 1960s. "There wasn't any guidance out there. No one had ever looked at the full range of systems in use or figured out a nice, easy planning scheme with best practices," he said. "So Kitty and I set out to do that." And do that they did.

The couple discovered a marriage of professions, too. "We came to it late in life," Kitty explained. "After 45 years of marriage, we realized that there is a nexus of law and my approach to civil society negotiation. So we've merged our systems—law and alternative ways to settle disputes."

Kitty sees alternative conflict resolution as a much-needed improvement to settling environmental disputes. "One of the most exciting characteristics of courts using problem solvers rather than applying a strict rule of law is that when alternative dispute resolution comes in, courts become real problem solvers for little and big issues affecting civil society." At present, judges can really botch things up. According to Rock, corruption of judges is a problem even in the United States. But more typically, the judges just don't have the expertise to hear the cases.

Rock compares generalist judges to baseball umpires. "They sit up there and call the balls and strikes," Rock said, "but they don't know how to play the game. It's the manager of the team who comes up with a solution." In environmental courts, this manager can be a scientist or an environmental expert who sits alongside the judge hearing cases.

During their global investigation, Rock and Kitty found environmental law had taken the greatest stride forward in the Philippines, where Tony Obosa had taken on the government for giving permits to clear-cut forests. Obosa sued in the name of his children and future generations whose rights to enjoy forests were being violated. He won, making the Philippines the first in the world to grant environmental justice rights to future generations.

"The little old Philippines way on the other side of the earth is telling all of us, 'Hey, it's not about today, it's about tomorrow,'" said Rock. (This ruling does not mean that the country is unanimously pro-environment. Retaliation against legal professionals in the Philippines often ends up in murder. Obosa's law partner was killed after helping ban nonsustainable fishing practices that routinely used dynamite and cyanide.)

"The Philippine court's decision," Kitty explained, "is an example of intergenerational equity, a concept being taught in law and business schools. It provides a forum for looking at the future and what the impact of every development decision will be."

'Greening Justice: Creating and Improving Environmental Courts and Tribunals' is available online: www.accessinitiative.org/resource/ greening-justice.


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