Standing Last in Line: The Hurdles to Bringing Environmental Accountability Lawsuits in Maryland

December 2022 / Abell-Supported Research / Environment
Group of people kayaking down a river.
Our court system is a core component of enforcing environmental protections. But current Maryland law limits who has standing to sue to protect the environment. This report looks at steps the state can take to improve this system.

The government – at the local, state, and federal level – has a crucial role to play in protecting the environment. And our courts are a core component of this system – enforcing laws that address the dangers that pollution poses to the environment and people’s health. Many legislatures, including the U.S. Congress, have passed laws expanding legal protections for the environment. However, executive agencies have often proven unwilling or unable to properly implement and enforce these laws.

Because of this, the public is left to appeal to the legal system to ensure environmental laws accomplish what they are set out to: protect people and the environment and hold violators accountable. To enforce environmental laws in court, however, an individual needs to have both a cause of action — a legal claim they can bring in court — and standing to sue — meaning they are the appropriate party to bring the claim.

In Standing Last in Line: The Hurdles to Bringing Environmental Accountability Lawsuits in Maryland, researchers from the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, and the Center for Progressive Reform explain this complex and at times confusing issue around legal standing. With research support from the Abell Foundation, the report finds that Maryland’s common law standing doctrines are among the most restrictive in the nation, creating additional hurdles to environmental accountability lawsuits.

As much as standing can be an obstacle for a person seeking to enforce an environmental law in federal court, even with the statutory causes of action provided by Congress, the situation is far more difficult for Marylanders seeking to enforce environmental laws in Maryland courts. Past legislative efforts to expand standing in Maryland have largely been ignored.

Other states can serve as a model for Maryland on this issue, and the report offers recommendations for reforming our legislation. To better protect our environment, the Maryland General Assembly should enact comprehensive environmental standing legislation that provides as much access to Maryland state courts as others are afforded in most other states and in federal courts. Specifically, Maryland should:

  • Create new rights to allow Marylanders to enforce violations of state pollution laws.
  • Codify federal standards for environmental standing in Maryland to ensure Marylanders have no less access to state courts than they have in federal courts.
  • Modernize and improve the Maryland Environmental Standing Act to revive its original purpose and give effect to the General Assembly’s initial intent.