It's not every day that the U.S. Supreme Court makes a ruling in a case directly related to the plastics industry. The court's recent decision to let stand a lower court ruling on the Shintech Inc. “environmental racism” case is notable for its good sense.
The court decided not to review a Louisiana Supreme Court decision that restricted student lawyers from doing volunteer work for citizens opposed to a new PVC plant. The decision won't stop these sorts of anti-industry efforts in the future. But it does make it a bit harder for opponents to use state resources to fight their battles.
First, some background: In January 1996, Shintech, a Houston-based PVC supplier, announced plans to build a $700 million chemical plant at a new site on the Gulf Coast. The plant, intended for Convent, La., would have produced 880 million pounds of PVC, 1.1 billion pounds of vinyl chloride monomer, 1.1 billion pounds of caustic soda and 990 million pounds of chlorine annually.
The company claimed the plant would have created 165 permanent jobs, plus 2,000 construction jobs.
But some local residents, concerned about toxic emissions and noise, didn't want the plant in their neighborhood. They found three important allies: Greenpeace, which would like to ban PVC; civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus; and the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic.
The result was a two-year battle in which both sides pulled out their biggest guns.
Shintech, normally a pretty close-to-the-vest company, worked with trade associations, business groups and Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster Jr. to try to get the project approved. When it was clear the case would end up in court, Shintech's allies contributed to re-election campaigns of key state Supreme Court justices.
The opponents, meanwhile, worked to get publicity for the David-vs.-Goliath struggle, including a feature on CBS News' 60 Minutes II program, a movie documentary narrated by Danny Glover, and plenty of coverage from the region's daily newspapers. Eventually they succeeded in getting the Environmental Protection Agency to halt the project while it investigated environmental justice guidelines, because the proposed plant would have been located in a low-income, minority-occupied area.
By now you've probably figured out the outcome, even if you didn't follow the case at the time: Shintech abandoned the site, choosing to build a smaller plant in another location. Greenpeace declared a “major civil rights victory.” And Foster and the business community retaliated against the easiest target, the Tulane law clinic.
Foster threatened to take away tax breaks for the university and urged alumni to stop giving money. When the school refused to back down, the state Supreme Court stepped in. The court exercised its power to regulate the practice of law in the state, ruling that student lawyers at all university law clinics could represent only clients who met strict income guidelines.
Students and their supporters appealed, but a federal judge in New Orleans and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the new rules. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has concurred, by declining to review those decisions.
The guideline makes sense. It makes it a bit more difficult to use state resources — in this case, the student lawyers — to create endless legal roadblocks to business projects that the state supports.
Although students and civil rights advocates complained about the guideline, the head of the Tulane clinic recently called it “a workable rule.” There are plenty of indigent individuals in the world who need energetic legal help. Greenpeace doesn't really qualify.