Bill would create environmental court

A bill now on Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s desk would create environmental courts to handle this specialized and often highly controversial area of law.


A bill now on Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s desk would create environmental courts to handle this specialized and often highly controversial area of law.

Under SB 632, the chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court will designate an environmental judge or judges for each circuit and for a district court within each circuit. The bill takes effect July 1, 2015, except for sections creating a working group to make recommendations on implementation, which would take place upon passage.

The Judiciary, according to spokeswoman Tammy Mori, doesn’t believe a separate environmental court is needed, but it has agreed to participate in the working group and provide a report about environmental cases over the past five years.

“The Judiciary still believes environmental calendars, as opposed to environmental courts, will result in better use of resources and funding,” Mori said.

The environmental courts will have exclusive, original jurisdiction over all proceedings, including judicial review of administrative proceedings and proceedings for declaratory judgment on the validity of agency rules authorized under Chapter 91, the Hawaii Administrative Procedure Act.

That includes historic preservation, protection of caves, litter control, electronic waste recycling, solid waste, safe drinking water, air pollution, environmental impact statements and a host of other state laws and regulations.

Proponents of the bill say it’s necessary to protect Hawaii’s environment through a consistent and uniform application of environmental laws. Currently, they say, there is an inconsistent approach to state environmental laws, depending on which court is handling the complaint.

“I think it’s an attempt to ease the concerns people have about environmental protections,” said Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, one of the sponsors of the bill.

It’s not known yet if Abercrombie will veto the bill or allow it to become law. The governor has until June 23 to provide a list of potential vetoes; he then has until July 8 to sign or veto bills or they become law without his signature.

“The governor, along with his staff, relevant departments and the Attorney General, will thoroughly review the final language of SB 632 in the coming weeks in order to make a decision based on its content and merit,” said Abercrombie spokesman Justin Fujioka.

Environmental groups largely support the measure.

“In the same way that Family Court has helped to raise awareness of and address issues related to domestic violence and youth criminal activity, the Environmental Court can help to raise awareness of and encourage protection of Hawaii’s imperiled natural environment,” said Martha Townsend, executive director of the Outdoor Circle, in March 31 testimony.


The bill is opposed by business groups such as the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Land Use Research Foundation, a nonprofit trade association representing landowners, developers and a utility company.

“If knowledge of environmental law is critical, then all judges and other decision-makers should be given an opportunity to be trained in that special subject matter area,” LURF said in March 28 testimony. “Cases can then be informally directed to those who are particularly interested or experienced in that area of law, and generalist judges would also be better trained to hear environmental cases.”

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