Eric Gross, MJLST Staffer
As the climate change crisis worsens and environmental protection laws continue to fall short of their stated goals, the movement to give natural entities such as lakes, rivers, and forests legal rights associated with personhood has expanded. Legislation driven by the “environmental personhood” movement has recently begun to appear around the world and in the United States as communities make efforts to protect their natural areas from harmful activity. The idea of entities that aren’t people having personhood status is not without precedent. Consider corporations, which have been defined as persons for limited legal purposes. Given the judicial rights already possessed by non-human entities like corporations, legal personhood has become a more attractive tool for those seeking to protect natural entities such as the Great Lakes. However, broad attempts to give natural entities personhood have run into legal challenges.
Lake Erie Bill of Rights Struck Down
In August 2014, the City of Toledo issued a drinking water warning to citizens not to drink the water; agricultural runoff and pollution into Lake Erie had caused a toxic algal bloom. The water remained undrinkable and even unusable for three days. Frustration with years of state government inaction on pollution boiled over, and in February 2019, the City of Toledo voted to establish a bill of rights for Lake Erie. Known as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (“LEBOR”), the bill was the product of a multi-year effort by Toledo citizens to protect Lake Erie from pollution.
LEBOR essentially gave personhood status to Lake Erie, including legal standing. It established “irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve, a right to a healthy environment for the residents of Toledo, and which elevates the rights of the community and its natural environment over powers claimed by certain corporations.” LEBOR declared that “Lake Erie, and the Lake Erie watershed, possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” and granted the people of Toledo “the right to a clean and healthy environment.” Under the statute, the City of Toledo, or any of its residents, held the right to sue on behalf of Lake Erie. The law also made governments and corporations strictly liable for violating the rights of Lake Erie “from any jurisdiction” and declared invalid any state laws or rules that conflicted with LEBOR.
Drewes Farms Partnership, an agricultural company that grows crops in four counties near Toledo, brought a lawsuit against the City of Toledo the day after the initiative passed, with the state of Ohio joining as an intervenor soon after. Drewes Farms and Ohio sought to have LEBOR declared invalid. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio sided with the corporation and state, holding LEBOR to be unconstitutionally vague and exceeding the power of municipal authority in Ohio. While recognizing the “well-intentioned goal” of the drafters, the court held that LEBOR was impermissibly vague in violation of the 14th Amendment. “LEBOR’s authors failed to make hard choices regarding the appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic activity. Instead, they employed language that sounds powerful but has no practical meaning.” This language, according to the court, could “trap the innocent [agricultural companies] by not providing fair warning” and invited arbitrary enforcement by prosecutors, judges and juries.
Additionally, the court held that LEBOR preempted state law and exceeded municipal authority. “LEBOR’s attempt to invalidate Ohio law in the name of environmental protection is a textbook example of what municipal government cannot do. Lake Erie is not a pond in Toledo. It is one of the five Great Lakes and one of the largest lakes on Earth, bordering dozens of cities, four states, and two countries…Consequently, municipal laws enacted to protect Lake Erie are generally void if they conflict with Ohio law.” The court did note that “with careful drafting, Toledo probably could enact valid legislation to reduce water pollution,” citing a Wisconsin ordinance restricting the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers in Madison city limits.
Other Options Exist to Protect the Great Lakes
The striking down of LEBOR indicates that while a municipality may enact ordinances to limit water pollution, such ordinances will likely have to remain limited in nature to survive a court’s scrutiny. Broader legislation to protect ecosystems like the Great Lakes will likely have to come through a state’s legislature, at the bare minimum. However, there are other options available to help protect the Great Lakes as a whole.
The public trust doctrine is a legally established method for individuals to protect natural resources that otherwise wouldn’t be able to protect themselves. Cited most frequently with bodies of water, the public trust doctrine establishes that the government maintains certain natural and cultural resources that are “owned” by the public. Recently, the Michigan Attorney General’s 2019 lawsuit to shut down an oil pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac cited the public trust doctrine, claiming the lease allowing the pipeline to operate violates the state’s obligation to “protect and preserve the waters of the Great Lakes and the lands beneath them for the public.” Additionally, a 2021 resolution passed by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago recognized that the water of the Great Lakes will remain in the public trust. This resolution from the water district of the largest metropolitan area in the Great Lakes region is another example of a step in the right direction for protecting the Great Lakes and equal access to clean water.
Notably, New York state assemblyman Patrick Burke has introduced legislation to create a more expansive Great Lakes Bill of Rights. Burke’s proposal would create a Great Lakes bill of rights that declares the right of the Great Lakes to exist, flourish and naturally evolve, giving the state and affected localities to sue on the Lakes’ behalf. The proposed legislation is remarkably similar to the struck-down Toledo law, and, if it becomes law, is likely to face similar legal challenges. While such a law would easily overcome the municipal overreach issue from Toledo, a proposed Great Lakes bill of rights statute is still likely to face the same vagueness issue that helped bring down LEBOR. However, in the face of continued pollution and disregard for our environment, laws like this represent the next logical step for protecting our lakes, rivers, and forests, and could finally give the Great Lakes the protection they deserve.
 Nicole Pallotta, Federal Judge Strikes Down ‘Lake Erie Bill of Rights,’ Animal Legal Defense Fund (May 4, 2020), https://aldf.org/article/federal-judge-strikes-down-lake-erie-bill-of-rights/#:~:text=The%20bill%20of%20rights%20established,powers%20claimed%20by%20certain%20corporations.
 Nina Totenberg, When Did Companies Become People? Excavating the Legal Evolution, NPR (July 28, 2014), https://www.npr.org/2014/07/28/335288388/when-did-companies-become-people-excavating-the-legal-evolution.
 Michael Wines, Behind Toledo’s Water Crisis, a Long-Troubled Lake Erie, N.Y. Times (Aug. 4, 2014), https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/04/us/toledo-faces-second-day-of-water-ban.html.
 Claire Brown, How Ohio’s Chamber of Commerce Killed an Anti-Pollution Bill of Rights, The Intercept (Aug. 29, 2019), https://theintercept.com/2019/08/29/lake-erie-bill-of-rights-ohio/.
 Lake Erie Bill of Rights, Beyond Pesticides (last visited Oct. 7, 2023), https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/LakeErieBillofRights.pdf.
 Drewes Farms P’ship v. City of Toledo, 441 F.Supp.3d 551 (N.D. Ohio 2020).
 Id. at 558.
 Id. at 557.
 Id. at 556.
 Id. at 557.
 Public trust doctrine, Cornell Law School (last visited Oct. 8, 2023), https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/public_trust_doctrine#:~:text=Public%20trust%20doctrine%20is%20a,waters%2C%20wildlife%2C%20or%20land.
 Jim Malewitz, Michigan AG Dana Nessel files lawsuit to shut down Line 5 in Mackinac Straits, Bridge MI (June 27, 2019), https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-environment-watch/michigan-ag-dana-nessel-files-lawsuit-shut-down-line-5-mackinac-straits.
 Allison Fore, MWRD Board of Commissioners passes resolution that affirms water is a basic human right, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chi. (June 3, 2021), https://mwrd.org/sites/default/files/2021-06/Water%20Equity.pdf.
 NYS Assemblyman Patrick Burke Introduces Great Lakes Bill of Rights, N.Y. State Assembly (Mar. 2, 2022), https://nyassembly.gov/mem/Patrick-Burke/story/100976#:~:text=The%20Great%20Lakes%20Bill%20of,and%20the%20Great%20Lakes%20ecosystem.%E2%80%9D.