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Connecting Environmental Protection and the Rule of Law

On the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, 35 human rights groups and WRI call on the presidential candidates to reaffirm the fundamental legal framework that makes environmental protection possible.

Constitution Day is Wednesday, September 17th. 221 years after the document’s ratification, the Constitution continues to provide the framework for one of the world's most stable and robust republic and democracy.

In honor of this day, an ideologically diverse coalition calls upon all presidential candidates to demonstrate their commitment and ability to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (Read the | text = full media advisory.)

Presidents and the Executive Branch exercise a great deal of discretion and flexibility in interpreting the Constitution. It is therefore essential that the presidential candidates, with the media’s help, hold a national dialogue on the Constitution. This would allow the American people to cast an informed vote by understanding where they stand on constitutional issues.

Why would an environmental think tank like WRI be so concerned about where candidates stand on constitutional issues?

The Constitutional framework is essential to environmental protection, because it establishes the legal principles, check and balances, and enforcement mechanisms that make regulations work. The next administration must therefore respect the Constitution and the legal foundation it provides.

In recent years, presidents of both parties have aimed to expand the scope of their authority through abuses of executive power. These practices not only weaken essential environmental laws and regulations, they are unconstitutional.

For example:

  • Our scientists' recommendations for ozone standards were overridden by an Executive Branch supporting laxer regulations. The President made a last minute intervention in the regulatory process to overturn recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency’s expert advisory panel which had been approved by the Administrator. Later, when asked by Congress to justify this action in the course of a subpoena, the Executive Branch withheld about 25 percent of the inter-agency communications which could have shed light on this intervention.

  • The legal protections given to us by Congress over nuclear waste management were disregarded by the President through signing statements. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress established whistleblower protections for members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy and federal contractors who would report safety violations in nuclear waste management. Yet President Bush declared in a signing statement that “the president or his appointees will determine whether employees of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can give information to Congress.”

  • The people were left out of the design of their own national health or energy plan. The Clinton Health Care task force and the Cheney Energy Task force conducted their operations behind closed doors, resisting both participation from a wide base of informed stakeholders and judicial proceedings to retrieve the information kept secret about the content and participants of the meetings.

When the rule of law fades, our environment deteriorates along with the American people's health and security. The Bush administration's abuses of executive power in particular are unprecedented in number and scope and have been exposed and denounced by groups and individuals across the political spectrum. Do they now constitute a precedent for the next President to follow? This question must be answered by the presidential candidates. We need to find out how the candidates would exert their executive authority as President before the election rather than learning it the hard way.

We want all campaigns to let the American people know where they stand on such core principles as checks and balances in government, government oversight by Congress, and transparency of information. WRI supports this call, along with the following organizations:

America Speaks
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Conservative Defense Alliance
American Freedom Agenda
American Freedom Campaign
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Californians Aware
Center for American Progress Action Fund
Center for Constitutional Rights
Common Cause
Defending Dissent Foundation
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Equal Justice Society
Get FISA Right
Government Accountability Project
Human Rights Watch
International Association of Whistleblowers (IAW)
Liberty Coalition
Minnesota Coalition on Government Information
Muslim Advocates
National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights
National Coalition of Organized Women
National Lawyers Guild
No FEAR Coalition
OMB Watch
Open The Government Coalition
OSC Watch
Privacy Lives
Project on Government Oversight
Public Citizen
Republican Liberty Caucus
Scientific Integrity Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists
The Brennan Center for Justice
The Rutherford Institute
Transpartisan Center
Whistleblowers USA
World Resources Institute

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