I’m impressed by the students—they’re highly engaged in the learning process, not just here to check a box off and get a legal degree.”
Professor of Law
Many environmental gains are under assault today by opponents wielding an expansive view of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment: they argue that it goes beyond eminent domain to ban laws and regulations that reduce any potential use of property. Standing at the ramparts has been Vermont Law School professor John Echeverria, whose expertise has been key in defending everything from wetlands permits to habitat protection measures to public health rules. "Any kind of rule or regulation you can imagine is potentially subject to challenge—and has been challenged," he says. "I'm defending the ability of the democratic process to generate measures protecting the public health and environment against an exaggerated view of property rights."
What became his "signature issue" began in 1992 when, as counsel for the National Audubon Society, he became involved in a beachfront management takings case. "I looked high and low for a private attorney to represent Audubon and couldn't find one, so I ended up doing the brief myself. It was an area that cried out for intervention." Since then, he has written voluminously on the issue, founded the Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute at Georgetown University Law Center to spearhead research, and filed legal briefs for governments and citizen groups in dozens of cases, including every landmark case before the Supreme Court.
Fighting back has had an effect, he says: "After flirting with an expansive view of the takings doctrine in the 1990s, the Supreme Court seems to have stepped back from the ledge and taken a more restrained view."
He left his Georgetown institute to teach at VLS in September 2009. "I came up here to give the Williams Lecture two years ago—maybe that was part of the recruiting process," he muses. He was persuaded by the shift from running an institute to teaching, "a new and different challenge I wanted to take on"; by being part of the VLS community with its collegial concentration of environmental experts and enthusiastic students; and by the beauty and character of Vermont itself: "After 25 years in Washington, I'm happy to look at the world from a different vantage point." The timing was finally right for him and his wife, Carin Pratt, executive producer of CBS's Face the Nation: they have one son away in college and another finishing up high school, so can make some lifestyle changes.
Raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Echeverria's father was Spanish Basque via Cuba and Venezuela; his mother's parents were British and American. Both parents taught French, his father at Brown University and his mother at middle school. An avid outdoorsman and birdwatcher, Echeverria received a joint degree from Yale's Law School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. After clerking for the Honorable Gerhard A. Gesell at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and working in corporate law, he became general counsel and conservation director of American Rivers, Inc., where he started a hydropower program to help environmentalists oppose dams on free-flowing rivers. He worked five years at the National Audubon Society as general counsel before approaching Georgetown about establishing an institute: "Environmentalists get embroiled over site-specific battles, and I thought that a contribution I could make would be to stand back from day-to-day battles and frame longer-term legal and intellectual campaigns to affect environmental law and policy." Among his accomplishments there were helping to increase citizen access to sue under the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, as well as producing influential reports on state judicial elections and disaster insurance reform.
At VLS, he teaches courses on water resources, property, and climate adaptation: "I'm impressed by the students—they're highly engaged in the learning process, not just here to check a box off and get a legal degree." He spends about a fifth of his time writing and representing clients, such as the amicus brief he filed recently on behalf of the American Planning Association and its Florida chapter in a upcoming Supreme Court case in which landowners are fighting beach replenishment because the new part of the beach, paid for with tax dollars, would be public property. "Takings is both an evergreen issue and a hot political issue, and I find it endlessly fascinating," he says.