Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Save The Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 27, 2010)

Sometimes your legal strategies can turn around and bite you in the arse.

For decades, environmental advocates have litigated for a strong and vigorous interpretation of statutes like the California Environmental Quality Act. Anti-environmental groups have decried the resulting doctrines, particularly the requirement that compels the creation of lengthy, time-consuming and often expensive environmental impact reports (EIRs) whenever a developer or municipality wants to do something that might arguably have an impact on the environment. But environmental groups have largely prevailed, at least here in California, and as a result, our EIR precedent is pretty darn strong.

But check out what happens here. The City of Manhattan Beach bans plastic bags at grocery stores and other retail establishments -- an unabashedly pro-environmental law designed to stop the proliferation of non-biodegradeable plastic bags in the ocean, on the roadside, and in the innards of various sea animals. But, not surprisingly, the plastic bag manufacturers ain't taking this lying down. They create an "unincorporated assocation" and call it the "Save the Plastic Bag Coalition" -- a much better name than "Self-Interested Plastic Mag Manufacturers" -- that then sues the City of Manhattan Beach.

Their claim? That the City didn't prepare a proper EIR. Since banning plastic bags, or making them more expensive, will likely increase the use of paper bags, thereby resulting in an increase in deforestation, paper mills, water pollution, etc.

And they win.

Justice Mosk, not surprisingly, dissents. With the following opening line: "Requiring the small city of Manhattan Beach (City), containing a little over 33,000 people, to expend public resources to prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) for enacting what the City believes is an environmentally friendly ordinance phasing out the retail distribution (not use) of plastic carryout bags within the City and promoting the use of reusable bags (not paper bags)stretches the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000, et seq.) (CEQA) and the requirements for an EIR to an absurdity."

But he loses. In large part precisely because of the expansive interpretations of CEQA that have been established by precedent in cases the majority of which Justice Mosk would agree with.

I have no doubt that anti-environmentalists, including but not limited to developers frustrated with past environmental litigation, are laughing heartily at this afternoon's decision.

This is perhaps the legal doctrinal equivalent to the non-legal line: "Karma's a bi[a]tch."