Due to the lapse in appropriations, Department of Justice websites will not be regularly updated. The Department’s essential law enforcement and national security functions will continue. Please refer to the Department of Justice’s contingency plan for more information.

Bennett v. Spear: Broadening the Right to Sue over ESA Issues

The Klamath River Overlook reveals an estuary for salmon, seals, sea lions, sea birds, and whales. Courtesy of NPS.

WMRS | Implementation of ESA and Related Litigation | ESA in the Supreme Court

The conflict in Bennett v. Spear was a classic western water dispute over the flows in one of the Nation’s oldest federal reclamation schemes, the Klamath Project on the Klamath River in Oregon. Irrigation districts and ranchers squared off with the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) over water rights affected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.

In 1992, the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) notified the Service that its Klamath Project reservoir operations might threaten two endangered species of sucker fish1. The Service issued a Biological Opinion (BiOp) which concluded that normal operation of the reservoir would lead to takings of the fish and recommended higher water levels. The implementation of this plan would reduce water availability downstream. The irrigation districts and ranchers, the eventual petitioners, sued the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) seeking a judicial review of the BiOp.

At issue in Bennett v. Spear was whether the citizen suit provision of the ESA grants standing to plaintiffs suing on the basis of economic harm resulting from alleged over-enforcement of the ESA. While the Court of Appeals had held that the petitioners lacked prudential standing because the grievance did not fall within the zone of interest of the statute (protecting endangered species), a unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, concluded that the ESA citizen suit provision, which allows “any person to commence civil suit,” negates zone of interest prudential standing analysis2.

The Court reasoned that because the ESA regulates the environment, a universal concern, the term “any person” should be read literally. It interpreted other provisions of the statute to further demonstrate Congress’ intent to grant broad standing, including the elimination of amount-in-controversy and diversity requirements, allowance for recovery of litigation costs, and reservation of the Government’s right of first refusal and ability to intervene3.

The government argued that the petitioners also lacked Article III standing. However, the Court concluded that a specific injury could be presumed from a showing of general injury, namely, that it could be assumed that less water overall would result in less water for the petitioners. The Court further concluded that the BiOp is coercive in effect and did not allow the Bureau to act as an independent, supervening third party.

Although the Court found that the petitioners had standing, it held that plaintiffs may not use the citizen suit provision against the Secretary for any purpose other than to compel nondiscretionary action. According to the Court, to allow suit for any alleged maladministration of the ESA would render the narrowly drafted citizen suit provision superfluous and subject the Secretary to criminal liability, contrary to Congressional intent.

The overall effect of Bennett was to establish the ESA as a tool of both environmentalists and competing users of natural resources to challenge government action.

1 Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 158 (1997).
2 Id. at 163.
3 Id. at 165.


Updated May 15, 2015

Was this page helpful?

Was this page helpful?
Yes No