Nature Can Use a Lawyer: Center for Earth Jurisprudence Seeks to Give Legal Rights to Forests, Birds and Streams

By Jordan, Jennifer Szweda | National Catholic Reporter, July 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

Nature Can Use a Lawyer: Center for Earth Jurisprudence Seeks to Give Legal Rights to Forests, Birds and Streams


Jordan, Jennifer Szweda, National Catholic Reporter


Working to further the idea that old-growth forests, piping plovers, mountain streams and all of nature have rights worthy of recognition in courtrooms, the Center for Earth Jurisprudence has just wrapped up its first academic year at two Catholic law schools.

Critics of this philosophy, including some students at the law school, consider the idea of giving rights to entities other than humans too radical to become reality. Not so, says Dominican Sr. Pat Siemen. She directs the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at the law schools at St. Thomas University, Miami, and Barry University, Miami Shores, both in Florida.

"We often get into the argument of how can trees have rights, they're a thing," Siemen says about classroom discussions on earth jurisprudence. "Corporations are not humans, but we have given them the rights of the constitution to be as persons. So someone goes into court and argues on behalf of a corporation and they have these rights of persons. That would need to be done with other beings as well."

The idea that nature could use a lawyer may be radical, but it's not new. In a 1972 law review journal article, Christopher D. Stone, University of Southern California Law School professor, posed the question, "Should trees have standing" to be legally recognized in court? In short, his answer was yes. That same year Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas agreed with Stone.

In Catholic circles, there's some history on the importance of nature, too. Nineteenth-century priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." More recently, Passionist priest and cosmologist Thomas Berry argued in an essay that "every being has rights." He states three rights in particular: the right to survive, the right to habitat, and "the right to fulfill its role in the great community of existence."

It was Berry who influenced Siemen. The 59-year-old Dominican sister lived close to the land when she was raised on a family farm. But it took years before she thought about earth jurisprudence. Her early legal work focused on advocating for people who were poor, minorities or otherwise voiceless.

In the 1980s, Siemen heard a tape-recorded essay by Berry. He imagined what would happen if the natural world could voice an opinion in what he called an earth democracy. He said humans would be voted off the planet because we don't take care of the natural world. Siemen was shocked.

"I had spent my whole life--at least adult life--ministerially trying to stand in positions of empowerment of others, and furthering the rights of others," Siemen said. "And I had never once really thought about what it meant to be--whether it would be rivers or endangered species--what it would mean to have to live and exist totally by the decisions of humans."

The Center for Earth Jurisprudence was funded by Siemen's religious community. The Dominican Sisters, based in Adrian, Mich., received $1 million from a private estate to further Catholic education in Florida.

Siemen said that opening the center is so important now because of predictions that climate change could create what she calls ecological refugees from severe flooding and drought. She sees earth jurisprudence as part of a commitment to Catholic social teaching that focuses on the church's responsibility to build a just society.

Siemen said that 30 years of major federal environmental laws haven't stopped global warming, so it's time for a more expansive approach.

"Earth jurisprudence, I would proffer, is larger than environmental law," Siemen said.

Besides directing the center, Siemen taught a seminar on earth jurisprudence at Barry University's Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law this past academic year. Some students, like Monica Mercer, were converts.

"I see it as being very, very doable," said Mercer. "It's just going to take time like any movement to gain momentum. …

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