The Supreme Court Friday limited the right of environmentalists to sue over federally supported projects overseas that allegedly threaten endangered species.
The ruling apparently makes it more difficult for environmentalists to challenge projects in this country, as well, by requiring proof the individuals suing were injured by a government activity.The 7-2 ruling, a victory for the Bush administration coincidentally handed down the day the president attends the Earth Summit in Brazil, overturned a victory for wildlife groups that seek to preserve endangered species outside U.S. borders.
The dissenters condemned the decision as "a slash and burn expedition" that could cost the environment dearly.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said it is not the job of the federal courts - even when asked by Congress to intervene - to act on generalized claims by citizens.
There must be specific, concrete grievances affecting individuals for the courts to have a role in such cases, he said.
To act otherwise, he said, would be "to permit Congress to transfer from the president to the courts the chief executive's most important constitutional duty, to take care that the laws be faithfully executed," Scalia said.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said: "I fear the court seeks to impose fresh limitations on the constitutional authority of Congress to allow citizen suits in the federal courts for injuries deemed procedural in nature."
"I cannot join the court on what amounts to a slash-and-burn expedition through the law" governing who has legal standing to sue over the environment, he said.
The case stems from a Reagan administration policy adopted in 1986 - and defended by the Bush administration - that said federal agencies need not consult with the Department of Interior over overseas projects that can affect endangered species.
Three environmental groups, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of Animals and Their Environment and the Humane Society, challenged the new policy in a federal lawsuit.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in St. Louis ruled in 1990 in favor of the wildlife groups, declaring they had standing to sue.
The wildlife groups said their members want to see and study endangered species in foreign nations.
The 8th Circuit court said Congress in the Endangered Species Act was committed to worldwide conservation, and it would be "radical" to exclude overseas projects from the law's scope.
But Justice Department lawyers said forcing U.S. agencies to consider environmental impact in other countries amounts to meddling in the affairs of foreign nations.