Some lawyers believe it’s time to stand for the rights of nature. They want to represent trees. They want to defend the rights of birds and lakes, and all of nature.
They’re trying to put into practice a theory called earth jurisprudence.
Jordan has the story:
Some lawyers believe it’s time to stand for the rights of nature. They
want to represent trees. They want to defend the rights of birds and
lakes, and all of nature. They’re trying to put into practice a theory
called earth jurisprudence. Jennifer Szweda Jordan has the story:
A law seminar on defending the rights of nature is probably not what
you expect, at least not at first. The start of Roman Catholic Sister
Pat Siemen’s law seminar on earth jurisprudence is unorthodox and Zen
“We’re gonna start with our reflection time. And what I’d like you to
do is close your computers.”
Siemen taps a handheld chime in a classroom at Barry Law School in
Orlando, Florida. She has the law students practice slowing down so
they’ll notice what’s going on around them in nature, and they’ll take
the time to really think about arguing for the rights of nature in the
The legal system doesn’t recognize the rights of nature just yet.
Courts interpret the Constitution as protecting needs and rights of
humans. So only humans, or say, groups of humans such as corporations
can sue. The rights of bunnies and trees aren’t entitled to a voice in
courtrooms. Siemen says the emerging field of earth jurisprudence wants
to change that.
Part of the whole thought of earth jurisprudence is that other beings
actually be given their rights -legislatively – to come into court
through the understanding that someone as a guardian or trustee stands
in their right.
Besides teaching this new area of law, Siemen directs the Center for
Earth Jurisprudence. The center’s just wrapped up its first academic
year. Siemen’s early legal work focused on advocating for people who
were poor, minorities, or otherwise marginalized.
Siemen moved in a different direction when she was influenced by
ecotheologian Thomas Berry. Berry says that if the animals and trees
had a voice, they’d vote humans off the planet. Siemen was shocked:
“I had spent my whole life – at least adult life – ministerially trying
to stand in positions of empowerment of others, and furthering the
rights of others and I had never once really thought about what it
meant to be – whether it would be rivers or endangered species – what
it would mean to have to live and exist totally by the decisions of
Siemen was also influenced by University of Southern California Law
School professor Christopher D. Stone. Stone wrote an article entitled
“Should Trees Have Standing?” In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William
Douglass agreed that inanimate objects should have rights. But that
view hasn’t gotten very far in American courtrooms.
The idea that ecosystems should have legal rights is problematic in the
view of free-market advocates. Sam Kazman is General Counsel for the
Competitive Enterprise Institute. He calls the theory of earth
“It is impossible to lay out what is in the best interest of an
ecosystem unless you lay out just what you as someone who owns that
ecosystem, or enjoys it, or appreciates it from a distance, what you
In other words, the owner will decide what’s best for the ecosystem.
Some legal experts believe giving nature rights would take nothing less
than a constitutional amendment.
University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Tom Buchele disagrees. He’s an
environmental lawyer who’s used the standing concept – unsuccessfully –
in arguing for a forest. He says that the Supreme Court could, if it
chose, interpret the constitution as allowing nature to have legal
“There’s certainly nothing in the constitution that says a case or
controversy has to have a person as the entity. It’s just that current
case law doesn’t do that.”
Buchele and Siemen know changes in court decisions are a long way away.
But if teaching about earth jurisprudence can make tomorrow’s corporate
counsels, real estate lawyers, and governmental officials consider the
trees and the water in their work, Siemen feels she’ll have made some
And getting law students to think about the rights of nature along with
the rights of humans might be the start of the legal revolution Siemen
wants to see.
For the Environment Report, this is Jennifer Szweda Jordan.