Sustained Outrage

M. Blane Michael, 1943-2011

Word came on Friday that Judge M. Blane Michael, one of two judges from West Virginia who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, had passed away. Judge Michael served on the 4th Circuit for more than 17 years.

Judge Michael was only the second occupant of seat nine on the court, which was created in 1978 and has always been held by a judge from West Virginia, with its duty station located in Charleston.

Others, including his old friend, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), have recalled his prodigious gifts as a lawyer and jurist, as well as his affability and warmth.

“Unvarnished in his honesty, uncanny in his humor and unequaled in his humility, Blane was a formidable presence on the federal bench, with a moral and intellectual compass set hard for justice,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “He was a brilliant judge who never took for granted the power and the responsibility of deciding the cases that impacted people’s lives or righted serious wrongs.”

I didn’t know Judge Michael well, but on those rare occasions when our paths crossed, I found him charming and unassuming, with a lively intellect that stretched far beyond the law.

But even as we recall what a personable and admirable man Judge Michael was, we should not overlook his stature as a judge, which is hard to overstate. It’s worth remembering that in 2005, when asked by the Bush administration, West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd recommended Judge Michael to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court after Chief Justice William Rehnquist died.

Through his opinions, he was a powerful voice, not just for West Virginia, but for the entire nation, as he served with distinction on one of the most carefully watched and influential courts in the country.

Over the years, my colleague Ken Ward has noted Judge Michael’s impact several times over on Coal Tattoo. Below are two samples of Michael’s clear and forceful writing, which do not even begin to do justice to the judge’s legacy.

Dissenting from the 4th Circuit’s decision not to rehear a case involving a mountaintop removal permit:

I respectfully dissent from this court’s denial of rehearing en banc on the issue of whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erred in approving permits that allow surface mining overburden to be placed into headwater streams, eliminating the streams and adjacent valleys. I recognize that it is not our role to second-guess the expertise of a regulatory agency, but we must nevertheless ensure that the Corps fulfills its duties under controlling law. In this case, the Corps has simply failed to do its job.

In the context of mountaintop removal mining, the Corps’ § 404(b) dredge and fill regulations require the agency to assess the “nature and degree of effect” that discharges of mining overburden into headwater streams will have “on the structure and function of the aquatic ecosystem and organisms.” 40 C.F.R. § 230.11(e) (2006). At a minimum, the regulations require some assessment of both stream structure and stream function. The Corps’ failure to assess stream function in this case and its later claim that an assessment of stream structure provides an adequate substitute cannot amount to a permissible construction of the regulations.

The ecological impact of filling headwater streams with mining overburden is both profound and irreversible. As the Corps itself acknowledges, “[i]t is well understood that the health of entire watersheds [is] dependent on functions provided by headwater streams.” J.A. 1823 (Black Castle combined decision document). The Corps goes on to explain that headwater streams provide a number of “important functions” including maintenance of natural discharge regimes, regulation of sediment export, retention of nutrients, processing of terrestrial organic matter, and exportation of water nutrients and organic matter to downstream areas. Id. The Corps does not credibly claim to have measured these functions for the permits at issue in this case.

Because the long-term environmental impacts of destroying headwater streams are not yet fully understood, permitting the filling of these streams without requiring the Corps to comply with its clear duty to assess functional impacts fatally undercuts the purpose of the regulations. The Corps’ Clean Water Act regulations require the agency to certify that any discharge of fill material will not cause or contribute to “significant degradation of the waters of the United States.” 40 C.F.R. § 230.10(c) (2006). Without the information provided by a functional assessment, the Corps cannot make that determination. No permit should issue until the Corps fulfills each distinct obligation under the controlling regulations. And this court should not defer to the Corps until the agency has done its job.

And another powerful dissent, discussed by Ken here, in another mountaintop removal case:

Today’s decision will have far-reaching consequences for the environment of Appalachia. It is not disputed that the impact of filling valleys and headwater streams is irreversible or that headwater streams provide crucial ecosystem functions. Further, the cumulative effects of the permitted fill activities on local streams and watersheds are considerable. By failing to require the Corps to undertake a meaningful assessment of the functions of the aquatic resources being destroyed and by allowing the Corps to proceed instead with a one-to-one mitigation that takes no account of lost stream function, this court risks significant harm to the affected watersheds and water resources. We should rescind the four permits at issue in this case until the Corps complies with the clear mandates of the regulations. First, the Corps must adequately determine the effect that the valley fills will have on the function of the aquatic ecosystem. Second, based on this determination, the Corps must certify that the fills, after mitigation is taken into account, will result in no significant degradation of waters of the United States and no significant adverse impact to the human environment.

Here is Judge Michael delivering the 2009 James Madison Lecture at his alma mater, New York University’s School of Law.