July 01, 2017

Views from the Chair

Seth A. Davis

Many thoughts run through my head as I write my final Views from the Chair column. The predictions of several of my predecessors were indeed accurate: This year has flown by with incredible speed. Working with so many dedicated and capable officers, council members, and committee chairs has been a total joy. We have produced conferences, programs, and publications of the highest quality, responded quickly to new and challenging legal issues, and improved the way we develop and deliver content. We have also improved and deepened our ties to environmental groups in bar associations of other countries.

Yet our legal specialty is in a state of uncertainty. President Trump’s appointees and his executive orders are attempting to undo a great body of federal environmental regulations built over four decades of bipartisan collaboration and solid science. After five months of behind-the- scenes battle, the president has withdrawn the United States from the international agreement on carbon reductions. And he has plans to cut funding to enforce the laws that protect clean air and clean water—while proclaiming that we will have the cleanest air and cleanest water. How should we as a bar association—sworn to political neutrality—address these substantive challenges to our particular bailiwick within the rule of law?

Many of us gathered at Pace University’s Haub School of Law in April for a program discussing such issues. While there were more questions raised than answers agreed upon, a few principles stood out. First, the basic statutes protecting America’s air, water, and land embody fundamental ideals that must not be compromised. We can disagree over the necessity of additional actions, but those basic statutes are the foundation whose erosion cannot be tolerated. Second, where the federal government shrinks from enforcement, state and local governments and the public itself must be prepared to step into the breach. I write this a few days after the announcement of our country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and already we can see this happening, with state and local governments as well as corporations voluntarily pledging to adhere to the Paris carbon reduction goals. Third, communities, corporations, individuals, and governments at all levels are quite capable of recognizing the need to address environmental issues and could actually provide a higher degree of environmental protection than command and control from Washington. This last point fits in perfectly with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s concept of “cooperative federalism.”

We continue to hold our conferences and publications open to content reflecting all points of view. As evidenced at the 46th Spring Conference in March, we are reaching out to Trump appointees to join us in dialogue and to participate in our conferences. As the “premier forum,” we will always be home to open dialogue. But there comes a point where we must stand firm. If the time comes when basic principles in our area of expertise are threatened, it is our duty as professionals to speak out. We must never compromise our objectivity and the standards of our profession. Above all, we must defend absolutely the rule of law—respect for the law, adherence to its processes, and an insistence on the honesty of its application. This responsibility is both individual and collective. As I prepare to pass the gavel to a most capable and principled successor, I ask all of you to keep these thoughts in mind.

Seth A. Davis

Seth Davis is the chair of the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources for 2016–2017. Seth is a partner in Elias Group LLP in Rye, New York. A long-time Section member, he has previously served as publications officer, Council member, and chair of the Environmental Transactions and Brownfields and Site Remediation Committees.