Bush Puts Strong Courts on Endangered Species List

April 13, 2001

April 13, 2001

Bush Puts Strong Courts on Endangered Species List

By Deborah Goldberg

President Bush wants to pick and choose when his administration will obey the law. In a budget document sent to Capitol Hill on Monday, he has asked Congress to eliminate funding needed for compliance with new court orders enforcing the Endangered Species Act. If the President gets his way, judges might decide that the government has violated that law, but administration officials will be able to thumb their noses at the courts.

There is something even more fundamental at stake here than the environmental legacy that we will leave our children (as if that were not enough). The administration’s proposed “budget item” is in fact an attack on the role of courts in our system of checks and balances.

Under this system of checks and balances, the judiciary restrains the executive branch, when it is ignoring directions from the legislature. But the system of checks and balances works only if the President respects the authority of the courts under our Constitution. The president hardly shows the requisite respect with a budget proposal designed to make judicial decisions meaningless.

The President knows that the court orders issued under the Endangered Species Act have a firm basis in law, but he doesn’t like the orders and so seeks a mechanism to circumvent them. Perhaps the next president won’t like court orders protecting the rights of gun owners. Members of Congress should worry about starting down this road. Those from both sides of the aisle who care about our constitutional structure and the role of judges in protecting our rights should be alarmed by the President’s attempt to undermine the judiciary, and they should refuse to have any part in it.

There is a better course of action. If more funds are needed to allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to fulfill its affirmative obligations to list endangered species, while conducting the litigation arising out of past failures, the President can increase the agency’s budget instead of eviscerating it. That way lies not only sound environmental policy but fidelity to the rule of law.