New Generation of Environmental Courts
ATLANTA (ANS) - There was a time when a litterer or an unscrupulous developer here in Fulton County could bend the county's environmental ordinances with little risk of swift or serious penalty. It often took years of prodding and legal action to catch up with violators. Sometimes a case would never be brought at all.That's just what might have happened late last year after an 89-year-old south Fulton resident had let junk and old cars pile high on his property for years. Pleading age and poverty, the violator had avoided fines for the cumulative eyesore and environmental hazard. But the junk was finally hauled away, by another recalcitrant polluter who used his truck to work off a $1,500 fine in a deal hammered out by judge and prosecutor of the county's newest innovation -- a special court that focuses on environmental and health ordinances. In other parts of Fulton County, junked automobiles and garbage dumping were creating more health and environmental hazards. The Chattahoochee River that circles greater Atlanta had become so polluted by sewage, runoff and silt that the city was eventually fined millions of dollars by the state."We needed to do something," said Richard Hicks, a former prosecutor who sits as the county's environmental court judge six times a month in three locations.Casting about for solutions, Fulton prosecutors and officials traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to visit an environmental court that has been adjudicating these sorts of cases since 1983. There, Memphis/Shelby County Judge Larry Potter has been widely credited with presiding over the nation's model eco-court: a combination of tough courtroom scrutiny, team supervision of polluted neighborhoods and environmental fines with enough teeth to set grassroots cleanups in motion. Hauling environmental wrongdoers into court is nothing new. The most spectacular cases have involved big oil spills and other environmental disasters that have triggered cries for justice. Courts like Potter's are different. They handle smaller cases that normally would fall beneath the radars of state or federal environmental enforcers.A common feature of environmental courts around the country is their emphasis on compliance -- cleaning up the mess -- rather than immediate punishment. Though the new breed of eco-judge usually has the authority to dole out the jail time and hefty fines, so far judges have been surprisingly successful at getting swift compliance. "Just this morning," Potter recounted recently, "a gentleman who had been very reluctant to take action got himself moving. I chewed him out and told him that I would personally be visiting his property at noon, and that we would be taking him into custody if I didn't see some results. When I got there, he had the entire neighborhood at work cleaning up his property."In Atlanta, Judge Hicks often holds over a developer or polluter's head the threat of community service -- at the county dump, which conveniently sits across the street from the northern county courthouse annex."The big developers didn't care. They were just building our fines right into their contracts," Hicks says. "But if the developer himself has to come down here and work 120 hours at our recycling facility, well, that changes his mind about doing it again another time." Among the more frequent violations at building sites is failure to use proper fencing to head off soil erosion. Kenneth Horton, a major developer in Fulton County, said he acknowledges the need for an environmental court but also sees flaws in how it works."The environmental laws are very ambiguous, and everything is at the interpretation of the (county) inspector," said Horton. "When you go before the judge, he's going to side with the inspector. And that's unfair to the developer."At the same time, he said, "I've watched Judge Hicks operate. I think he's a fair judge." Horton said he has never been threatened with community service at the town dump but did pay a $750 fine in a disputed case involving the question of erosion control. In Memphis, Potter said the court's broad authority -- in 1991 he was given stronger powers to order jail time and larger fines -- has been a key to its changing the way Shelby County's environmental laws are observed and enforced.The judge has used his new mandate to order, in several cases, more than $10,000 worth of pollution cleanup by lawbreakers. As a result the county, formerly home to thousands of illegal dumps, has cleaned up its act significantly.Inspired by the examples of Memphis and Atlanta, increasing numbers of communities have been testing their own versions of the eco-court. The south Atlanta suburb of Forest Park recently created such a court, for instance, and the city of New Orleans is also developing one. They join two dozen existing courts in cities such as Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga -- all descendants from the original court established in Indianapolis in 1978 after a model created by the environmental group Keep America Beautiful, based in Washington, D.C. It's a trend environmental judges hope will continue. "Developers complain that we're making it so hard to build in these communities that they won't develop anymore," sums up Hicks. "Well, I don't know whether to take that as threat or as a sign that we're doing a good job."I mean, if you're not building according to the law, we don't want you building."SIDEBAR: Enviro-Courts Keep Cases from Being Lost in Rising Tide of Litigation In a court system overrun with criminal cases and litigation of all kinds, environmental problems can easily get lost in the legal shuffle, say those who work within the system. For this reason, judges and prosecutors in various parts of the country have set up environmental courts. "A regular judge and prosecutor don't have that much time (for environmental issues) when they're dealing with more serious cases," said Richard Hicks, an environmental court judge here in Fulton County, which includes north Atlanta and some other communities just north of the city. Environmental Judge Larry Potter in Memphis agrees. "When a judge hears a case of murder or rape, and then the next case is criminal littering -- well, it's just not treated the same way," said Potter. "And that's not fair, because these (environmental crimes) are issues of a very serious and sensitive nature. They deserve to be dealt with in a firm manner."Like other environmental courts, Potter's in Memphis patches together a budget from existing local, state and federal funding, as well as fines exacted on violators.© COPYRIGHT THE AMERICAN NEWS SERVICE ContactsJudge Larry Potter, Shelby County Environmental Court, Shelby County, Tenn., contact Paula Rhodes, administrative specialist, 901-576-3456. Judge Richard Hicks, Fulton County Environmental Court, Fulton County, Ga., 770-642-8911.Kenneth Horton, owner, Horton Development Company, Fulton County, Ga., 770-475-5066.Background:Janet Perlman Manchel, assistant solicitor, Fulton County, Ga., 770-551-7725. Keep America Beautiful, Stamford, Conn., 203-323-8987.