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Citizen Suits: Public Interest or Private Advocacy

Linda L. Rockwood, Colin C. Deihl, Carol A. Deck, Proceedings of 46th Annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute (2000)

Most modern environmental protection statutes contain a citizen suit provision that authorizes any citizen to bring suit to enforce the environmental prohibitions contained in the statute.1 Although each statute's citizen suit provision contains slightly different wording, the statutes all contain similar requirements and provide for similar remedies. Typically, they allow any citizen to seek either injunctive relief or penalties against any person who is alleged to have violated the statute so long as 60 days prior notice is provided. Although citizen suits have been part of the fabric of enforcement of environmental statutes for decades, they continue to generate significant judicial activity, including several Supreme Court cases this year.

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This paper examines these citizen suit provisions, and explains that despite the broad congressional language, courts have imposed a number of limitations on citizen suits that provide potential defenses for those subject to such suits, and potential pitfalls for those attempting to use the suits as an enforcement tool. Despite these limitations, citizen suit litigation is alive and well with numerous new cases providing evidence that plaintiffs are taking advantage of the private attorney general role afforded by these statutes, and in the process gaining a seat at the table in an attempt to obtain a specific