Environmental litigation can take a long time to fully resolve. Largely focused on administrative law, these cases can go up and down the judicial ladder for decades, finally reaching resolution on one point only to be challenged on another. 
One example is the Pit River Tribe case, which has been with Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic almost since the start of the clinic itself. Challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to undertake adequate environmental review and tribal consultation for industrial-scale energy development in the sacred Medicine Lake Highlands of Northern California, the case was brought to Deborah A. Sivas in 1998 when the tribe needed legal assistance to protect the area’s environmental and cultural values.

Illustration of a black figure standing on a pile of green books, standing between a sprouting planet and an black steamroller. He holds a green book as a shield and a pencil as a sword.
Illustration by Christoph Neimann

“Medicine Lake is a good illustration of the complexity of some of our cases—how issues can develop, going from one academic year to the next, from one court to the next. It’s been 12 years and we’re still working on this one, and learning from it,” says Sivas ’87, Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law and director of the Environmental Law Clinic.

Sivas has been at the cutting edge of environmental law since her days as an associate with Heller Ehrman and a partner at Gunther, Sivas & Walthall, helping to establish environmental practices at each firm. While working in the Seattle office of Earthjustice, she also launched a legal program for the forest conservation nonprofit The Lands Council. Her first love was science (she holds a master’s in ecology) but she chose to pursue a law degree. “I felt like my talents and my interests were a better fit for the advocacy side than the pure sciences,” she says.

Today, many of the big firms have an environmental practice and with climate issues at the forefront of national debate, there are myriad opportunities for new lawyers—some that didn’t even exist when Sivas graduated from law school.

“There wasn’t an environmental law program here when I was studying law. And the field was just getting going after I graduated, so there was a lot of excitement and opportunity—but it was new. I was in on the ground floor of the environmental practice group at Heller,” she says. “Today, I think again there’s a lot of opportunity across all sectors in this field.”

Environmental Law Program Takes Off

While working in the field, Sivas admired the efforts of faculty members as they established the environmental program at Stanford Law School, particularly the work of Barton H. 
“Buzz” Thompson, Jr., JD/MBA ’76 (BA ’72), Robert E. Paradise 
Professor in Natural Resources Law and Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment, and Margaret “Meg” Caldwell ’85, senior lecturer in law, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program, and executive director of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions, Woods Institute for the Environment. When they launched the Environmental Law Clinic in 1997, Sivas returned to Stanford Law to become its first permanent director.

Since that time, the clinic has developed a national and international reputation for its involvement in much of the major environmental litigation in the country, with its expertise sought on issues such as public land use, marine and coastal resources, biodiversity, water quality, and global climate change. The clinic juggles a full workload, with Sivas, a teaching fellow, and 14 to 16 students (typically 12 full-time 2Ls and a handful of continuing advanced students). They work on approximately two dozen cases and various policy questions in each quarter, representing a variety of nonprofit organizations, from national groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Ocean Conservancy to such regional and local grassroots groups as the Center for Biological Diversity, California Coastkeeper Alliance, and Turtle Island Restoration Network. And Sivas is taking on policy projects outside of the national borders, with new clinic clients in Europe and Latin America.

“Students work on both policy projects and litigation projects over the course of a clinic, so they have exposure to a range of issues,” says Sivas, adding that the clinic liaises closely with other faculty within the law school and other programs across the university. “With the addition of Michael Wara ’06 to the faculty, and his international climate change scholarship and connections, we’re seeing an opportunity to get involved in policy discussions at the international level. It’s very exciting.”

James Williams ’10 signed up for the Environmental Law Clinic at his first opportunity—the beginning of his 2L year. “We were writing an amicus brief for a Supreme Court case on behalf of a coalition of basically every significant environmental group in the country. Our client representatives were the top 30 Clean Water Act attorneys at these groups—and when it came time to write a brief, they gave it to the Stanford Law clinic. That’s the reputation of this clinic,” he says. “That’s why I came here.”

Making Their Case before the Ninth

Now an advanced clinic student, Williams argued the Pit River Tribe v. Bureau of Land Management case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on March 10, 2010.

“The opposing side had something like a combined 65 years of experience between the two very seasoned attorneys—one from the Department of Justice, the other formerly at Justice and now in private practice working on behalf of Calpine. And I think the Calpine attorney had argued more than 100 cases. They were certainly formidable,” says Williams.

But much more intimidating to him were the members of the Pit River Tribe who had made the journey to San Francisco to hear him make their case—the courtroom was packed, as was an overflow room. Also in attendance were his colleagues in the clinic. At stake: further development at Medicine Lake, a site held sacred by the tribe for more than 10,000 years.

This was the clinic’s second appearance before the Ninth Circuit on the question of whether leases that expired in 1998 could be extended: The clinic lost before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in 2002 and then won on appeal before the Ninth Circuit in 2006. But the tribe disagreed with the way in which the Eastern District Court interpreted the Ninth Circuit’s order, so this second hearing before the Ninth Circuit sought clarification on the original ruling.

Williams arrived for his argument well prepared, having mooted the case with Sivas, Clinic Teaching Fellow Robb Kapla (BA ’99, MS ’00), as well as Lawrence C. Marshall, professor of law, associate dean for clinical education, and the David & Stephanie Mills Director of the Mills Legal Clinic, and several clinic directors. Williams also benefited from the work of dozens of students before him.

“I did review previous students’ files and was grateful to have that research. But this was a very narrow issue: Did the district court err in interpreting and applying the Ninth Circuit Court’s 2006 decision? So, while the larger issue is about environmental preservation and development, this particular hearing was all about procedure and jurisdiction,” he says. Fortunately for 
Williams, he was taking Administrative Law with Daniel E. Ho, associate professor of law and Robert E. Paradise Faculty Fellow for Excellence in Teaching and Research, at the same time as the clinic and had the benefit of Ho’s expertise as he prepared. “It’s a perfect illustration of how law school should work: the practical skills from the clinic complemented by classroom lessons,” he says.

After looking at the case from every conceivable angle—and mooting the case with some of the best litigators in the country—he was ready to face the three-judge panel.

“I probably practiced a dozen opening statements,” he says, adding that the outcome of the case may not be known for several months. While Williams found oral argument “exhilarating,” he hopes to focus on policy issues in his career rather than on litigation.

“We resort to litigation when there’s a failure of the policymakers to properly consider environmental issues. It’s largely procedural—policing regulatory agencies,” he says. “What we’re really trying to do is prod these administrative agencies to follow the law and do what they’re supposed to do, which is to undertake proper environmental reviews or enact proper policies. It’s a difficult process that involves continual give and take.” Williams will begin an honors fellowship with the Santa Clara County Counsel’s office after the bar exam.

As for Sivas and her newest crop of clinic students, the work continues. Indeed, the clinic now has two separate Medicine Lake cases, and pending litigation in the U.S. District Court of Eastern California, so it’s likely that this client will be on its docket for a while longer. But that’s the nature of this work—looking at the big picture and the very narrow question, the local and the international, the grassroots and the national—environmental law from every angle, for as long as it takes to get the job done.

Environmental Law Clinic

Key facts:

  • • Founded in 1996; permanent director hired in 1997
  • • Maintains a caseload of approximately 30 administrative, litigation, and policy matters
  • • 14-16 students participate each quarter

Key cases:

  • • Protection of Joshua Tree National Park
  • • Regulation of discharges of invasive species from ships
  • • Conservation of the endangered Mojave desert tortoise
  • • Protection of sea turtles from harmful fishing practices
  • • Conservation of endangered vernal pool species and habitats
  • • Preservation of public trust tidelands
  • • Climate change litigation

Hear James Williams’ oral argument before the Ninth Circuit on March 10, 2010.

Watch the “Gulf Oil Spill: Stanford Law Faculty Weigh In” Video.