Legal Eagle: Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Fights for the Environment-And for His Kids' Future

By Russell, Dick | E Magazine, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Legal Eagle: Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Fights for the Environment-And for His Kids' Future


Russell, Dick, E Magazine


It was mid-afternoon inside Aloysius Hall, on the campus of the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, New York. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who founded the clinic in 1986, sat behind a "judge's bench" with co-director Karl Coplan. Across the room, 10 third-year law students were taking turns at a podium, practicing their oral arguments for a forthcoming case. On behalf of Riverkeeper, Inc., and four fishermen's organizations, the clinic was suing New York City for discharging highly turbid water into a world-renowned Catskill trout Stream, Esopus Creek, for nearly four years without a required federal permit under the Clean Water Act.

At 49, Bobby (as he prefers to be called) looks uncannily like his father, the former Attorney General and U.S. Senator who was assassinated during his 1968 campaign for the presidency. Now his penetrating blue eyes focused on a female student as she concluded her argument. "Your presentation was great," he told her. "Great eye contact, using your hands--you didn't seem to be reading your notes." He addressed the need to paint a picture to the judge of the poor design of the intake pipe.

With the next student, Bobby started play-acting devil's advocate, firing questions and posing hypothetical situations to him. "Doesn't a government agency have the right to make the calculation that bringing water to children and the elderly is more important than a trout?" The student, John Paul, responded eloquently, discussing a minimal cost to ratepayers if the environmental regulations were followed. Instructor Coplan started to respond, "Now if you can do that again in front of a judge ..." when Bobby interjected: "Then we won't gel sued for malpractice." The class burst out laughing.

In fact, after four clinic students (including Paul) went on to conduct most of the arguments before a U.S. District Court last January, Judge Frederick Scullin would hand down the highest penalty ever awarded in a citizen's suit against a municipality ($5.7 million), as well as order New York City to finally obtain a discharge permit, it was a great victory for the Pace team of student litigators, which has won 300-some legal actions and forced polluters to spend around $3 billion in cleanup efforts over the past 17 years.

But this latest decision was still a ways off, as the two hour class ended and Bobby Kennedy, Jr., walked back to his office a couple of buildings away. The outer entryway is dominated by a fish-filled aquarium, where he pointed out a rare Hudson sturgeon. His rather spartan office is at the end of a long hallway pasta long mural of the river's history that Bobby designed. Inside, a 1967 photograph of his father during a Scenic Hudson Preservation Tour is framed on the wall alongside some 19th-century nature prints.

Many Roles

In addition to his professorial role and his own law practice, Kennedy serves as president of the Waterkeeper Alliance--an international coalition that now numbers 99 grassroots groups--and as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He's also co-author of a best-selling book, The Riverkeepers, writes op-ed columns for the New York Times and other major newspapers, and speaks to large audiences all across the country.

In recent years, Kennedy has emerged as one of America's most charismatic environmental activists. Not only in his own backyard, where he was instrumental in forging the 1995 Watershed Agreement to protect New York City's water supply, but in working with indigenous tribes in Latin America and Canada to protect their traditional lands. He's also an avid outdoorsman--a master falconer, kayaker, skier, sailor and fisherman who's led white water rafting expeditions down several relatively unexplored rivers in South America and Canada.

"I learned very early Bobby's love for nature and animals," recalls author Jack Newfield. "I first met him in 1967, when I was writing a book about his father. …

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