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High Court dismisses appeal over private lawsuits in environmental racism case.

The Supreme Court dismissed a case on whether private citizens have a right to sue a federal agency over regulations that result in racial discrimination.

At issue was the future of an environmental racism lawsuit brought by residents of the predominantly African American city of Chester, Pennsylvania, who claimed the state has allowed a disproportionate number of waste treatment facilities to be built in their section of Delaware County since 1987.

The residents argued that the state has allowed five facilities in their city and only two in the rest of the county, which is predominantly white. The residents sought to block the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from granting another permit for a waste treatment facility in Chester. (Seif v. Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, 132 F.3d 925 (3d Cir. 1997), cert. granted (U.S. June 8, 1998) (No. 97-1620), dismissed (U.S. Aug. 17, 1998).)

Rather than ruling on the merits of the appeal, the court dismissed the case as moot after the permit for the facility was revoked this summer. The plant will not be built. (Associated Press, Supreme Court Dismisses `Environmental Racism' Case, Wash. Post, Aug. 18, 1998, at A8.)

The Court was to decide whether private parties can seek enforcement of federal regulations governing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI bars racial bias in federally financed projects. DEP receives federal funds.

"Title VI is a crucial weapon in fighting environmental racism," said University of California, Los Angeles, law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. But he added that proving discriminatory intent is a tough obstacle in these cases.

The Supreme Court examined the right-to-sue issue in 1983 in Guardians Association v. Civil Service Commission of the City of New York (463 U.S. 582). A splintered Court then ruled private lawsuits may go forward when intentional discrimination is alleged, but the Court did not reach the question of the viability of suits that allege discriminatory effect.

The Chester trial court dismissed the residents' case in 1996, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals revived it, finding that the residents could sue for discriminatory effect under Title VI.

DEP officials appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Third Circuit improperly made it possible for private citizens to try to enforce in federal court EPA regulations that can only be enforced by the agency itself.

Jerome Balter, a lawyer for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which represents the Chester residents, said he was surprised the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case. He said no conflict exists among the circuits.

"The Third Circuit was the ninth circuit court to find that private citizens have a right to sue in these kinds of cases," Balter said.

The Department of Environmental Protection, however, argued precisely the opposite-that no lower court has dealt head-on with the discriminatory effect issue. In seeking review, the state agency said the Guardians Court "left the Third Circuit... without guidance," which led that court to "erroneously [hold] that Title VI authorizes a private action based upon a showing of only discriminatory effect."
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Brienza, Julie
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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