Environmental Law

Environmental politics and policy in the United States are heavily shaped by legal conflict, but there is precious little social science research focused on environmental law and litigation. In the course of studying the U.S. environmental politics and policy, in particular, RESL is also focused on deepening social scientific understandings of the role of law and the courts in shaping environmental politics and regulation. (Litigation plays a smaller role in other countries, like Germany, because of distinctive institutional features that make it harder to use the courts to change policy.)

Mapping Patterns of Federal Civil Environmental Litigation

A first step towards understanding environmental legal conflict in the United States is simply mapping who drives environmental lawsuits, who wins, who loses, and what kinds of environmental issues these legal conflicts are focused on. To this end, RESL has assembled the first-ever comprehensive accounting of environmental legal conflict in the United States, from the late 1980s to the early 2020s.

It turns out that the vast majority of federal environmental-legal conflict in the United States is driven by just three types of organizations: the federal government itself, mostly suing private firms as a means of enforcing environmental laws; firms and industry associations, mostly suing each other over liability for cleanup costs; and environmental non-profits, mostly suing the federal government and firms to step up enforcement of environmental laws. It also turns out that the broadly pro-regulatory government and environmental non-profits win far more often than firms do. In other words, pro-regulatory forces dominate the courts as a means of shaping and enforcing environmental policy. Read our draft paper, and dive into the supplemental materials if you want to dig into the nitty-gritty details of the data and analysis.

Plaintiff wins and losses by type and by region. Each point represents a federal court district. Dashed diagonal lines represent equal numbers of wins and losses. Environmental advocacy groups tend to win about as much as they lose (mean win rate, µ, is 48.4% of n = 6,063 cases, win:loss ratio is 1.14:1 (some cases are neither wins nor losses) and median win rate, M, is 44.2%.), but cases are highly concentrated on the West Coast and Western Interior – places where concerns about conservation trump environmental justice and pollution. Cases brought by the federal government do not clearly cluster in a specific region but federal government plaintiffs win overwhelmingly more than they lose (win rate 69.2% and win:loss ratio of 3.49:1). Cases brought by firms and trade associations cluster somewhat in the Pacific region but are much more evenly distributed than cases brought by ENGOs. Overall, firm plaintiffs tend to win about as often as they lose (win rate 46.5% and win:loss ratio 1.03:1), but the firm win rate drops considerably (to 38.0%) when excluding cases that target other firms – i.e., cases that are unlikely to have a direct effect on environmental policy or enforcement.

Related Scholarship


Rea, Christopher M., Nikolas Merton† and Casey Rife†. “Inequality in Advocacy: Environmental Litigation in the United States, 1988-2021.” [read here] [supplemental materials]