Attorney General Paxton joined a West Virginia-led cert-stage amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a case that has important implications for states’ ability to protect their environment.  

Within the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), Congress codified the vital role that states play in prosecuting CWA violations. Importantly, if a CWA violation occurs and a state is prosecuting the alleged violation under a state law comparable to an enforcement action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), Congress made clear that the violation should not also be the subject of a private civil penalty action. This prevents so-called “citizen suits,” or lawsuits launched by private plaintiffs, from replacing or superseding government action to enforce the law.  

However, the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently issued a ruling that undermines this design. The amicus brief was filed in a case where South Carolina was actively responding to a CWA violation, but the Fourth Circuit ruled that the state’s actions did not suffice to preclude a private lawsuit that was also filed in response to the same violation. This decision contradicts Congress’s directive for the enforcement of the CWA and threatens to compromise the proper enforcement of other laws as well.  

The amicus brief states: “[T]he majority’s cramped view of state power and confused perspective on citizen suits is not relevant to just that Act. Plenty of other laws—including the Clean Air Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—have similar citizen-suit provisions. And in narrowing the bar against citizen suits, the Fourth Circuit disregarded both the deference States are owed generally and the discretion they are owed specifically on water and land management issues like these.” 

To read the full amicus brief, click here.