At the Environmental Justice Clinic, students represent and partner with disenfranchised communities fighting racial and economic disparities in the distribution of polluting sources, while also fighting for a say in decisions affecting their future.
About the Environmental Justice Clinic
The Environmental Justice (EJ) Clinic at VLS is one of just a few law school clinics in the United States specifically devoted to environmental justice, an interdisciplinary practice at the intersection of civil rights and the environment. Students are involved in real-life cases. They work in partnership with low-income communities and communities of color to address racial disparities and ensure that residents can fully participate in decisions affecting their health and welfare. They gain experience working on law and policy issues at the nexus of environment, race, and policy, while also learning essential community lawyering skills. Mike Harris will lead the clinic as Interim Director for the Fall 2022 Semester.
Current Cases and Projects
The clinic’s docket focuses on representing overburdened communities who are fighting for a voice while facing racial and economic disparities in the distribution of polluting sources. Students are expected to produce work consistent with that of the finest attorneys and consultants as they work with clients and partners across the country, addressing issues such as:
Living in the Shadow of Polluting Facilities: Students intervened on behalf of the local community, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity in an appeals case over whether a refinery in St. Croix Virgin Islands can reopen. The refinery was shuttered in 2011, and when a new owner attempted to restart the refinery in 2021, oil rained from the sky twice in five months on the local community. Students intervened to ask the court to require special permits under the Clean Air Act, which would require equipment at the refinery be upgraded to the “best available technology” to ensure safe operation and minimize toxic pollution.
A Highway Dividing a Community: A student team is working on behalf of residents in the Maple/King neighborhood of Burlington, Vermont—the most diverse in the state. Students submitted an Amicus Brief to the Federal District Court highlighting how the community’s wishes have been ignored, and advocating for an alternative route, that would divert traffic away from residential communities.
Title VI: The clinic frequently seeks to protect environmental justice communities using Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VI prohibits recipients of federal monies (states, grantees, etc.) from discriminating based on race, color or national origin. In several past and current clinic cases, students have investigated, filed complaints, and sued state environmental agencies and the US Environmental Protection Agency over discriminatory policies and conduct that resulted in disproportionate human health and environmental impacts on minority and low-income populations.
Students also participate in a seminar that focuses on community-based lawyering, discussing the theoretical, practical, and ethical dimensions of a lawyer’s role in representing and working with disenfranchised communities. Topics include client interviewing and counseling; case theory; settlement negotiations; brief writing; oral argument (trial and appellate); direct/cross examination; depositions; discovery planning; regulatory, legislative, and media advocacy; and more.
The EJ Clinic strives to further the environmental justice movement by representing and partnering with environmentally overburdened communities of color and low-income communities. The clinic seeks to enforce civil rights in the environmental context, while providing technical assistance and sharing resources to develop and implement other legal strategies. To that end, the clinic trains students to be ethical and effective advocates for their clients while adhering to the Principles of Environmental Justice.
Launched in 2019, the Environmental Justice Clinic is a new and growing program open to Vermont Law School Master’s and JD students. For questions about the clinic, contact Interim Director Mike Harris at MRHarris@vermontlaw.edu. For questions about admission to Vermont Law School, contact email@example.com.