Activists Pull Lawsuit Seeking Colorado River Personhood Rights
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that sought personhood rights for the Colorado River on Monday.
The court granted the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss their own case. Attorney Jason Flores-Williams filed the motion to dismiss after Colorado’s office of the Attorney General made clear it would pursue sanctions against them under Rule 11 of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure. Rule 11 allows for the Court to reprimand lawyers for presenting frivolous or false claims to the court, and could result in fines or other legal recourse.
“I do not doubt the personal convictions of those groups and individuals who claimed to speak on behalf of the ecosystem,” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said in a statement after the case was dismissed. “However, the case itself unacceptably impugned the state’s sovereign authority to administer natural resources for public use, and was well beyond the jurisdiction of the judicial branch of government. After my office presented counsel with these and other realities, he readied and wisely chose to withdraw the case.”
While the Colorado River was named the plaintiff in the lawsuit Colorado River v. State of Colorado, environmental group Deep Green Resistance, Denver-based lawyer Flores-Williams and Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund helped bring forward the case on behalf of the “plaintiff.”
The suit was immediately met with criticism as a publicity stunt from Western land and water attorneys.
“The plaintiff’s professed goal is unraveling our very civilization–ironically by seeking human rights for an inanimate object,” Kent Holsinger, a Denver-based attorney specializing in land and water law, told Western Wire in September. “The plaintiffs’ shallow publicity stunt would seek to do away with it all to the detriment of our communities and the environment,” Holsinger said.
At the time, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper would not comment on pending litigation, but a spokesperson told Western Wire, “Colorado and countless partners have long understood the significance of the Colorado River system and the need to balance our needs for water with conservation and enhancement of the river ecosystem. This extends from efforts to protect—and improve habitat for—endangered fish in the river over the course of decades to the recent development of Colorado’s Water Plan.”
The state of Colorado had filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on October 17, claiming the suit did not have standing. Shortly after attorneys for the plaintiff acknowledged that the suit would likely not settle in their favor, telling the Post Independent, “The court isn’t going to just give us anything. How we won’t lose is not based on whatever will happen inside the courtroom, but what happens outside of it.”
“The undersigned continues to believe that the doctrine provides American courts with a pragmatic and workable tool for addressing environmental degradation and the current issues facing the Colorado River,” Flores-Williams wrote in the voluntary motion to dismiss. “That said, the expansion of rights is a difficult and legally complex matter. When engaged in an effort of first impression, the undersigned has a heightened ethical duty to continuously ensure that conditions are appropriate for our judicial institution to best consider the merits of a new canon.”
Originally filed in September, the suit sought “rights, including the right to exist, flourish, evolve, regenerate, and restoration” for the Colorado River, and was one of the first of its kind in the United States aiming to establish legal rights for nature.