Does Natural Beauty have Legal Standing? with environmental lawyer, ALBERT BUTZEL


The Defense of “Storm King”

Astonishingly, the answer is “yes.” American law in most every instance grants “legal standing” in civil court—that is, the right to have a complaint heard by the court—only on the basis of an interest originating in injury of various kinds, especially physical, emotional or pecuniary injury. But in an extraordinary moment, on December 29th 1965, the New York State Court of Appeals blocked Consolidated Edison from constructing what would have been one of the world’s largest hydroelectric plants on the banks of the Hudson River, at STORM KING mountain, and devastating the region. In the precedent setting decision, the court ruled that “the preservation of natural beauty” can be represented in court—that natural beauty does have legal standing—as a legitimately specific interest. That mountain is now STORM KING STATE PARK and the court case that defended the park is itself referenced as having founded the origin of environmental law.

But the extraordinary precedent that was set in the struggle to protect Storm King has largely languished. Judges have since failed to recognize it or uphold it.

In March 2015, students and faculty at CRITICAL THEORY AND THE ARTS discussed the case—the puzzle of natural beauty and the law— with Albert Butzel, the distinguished environmental lawyer who led the struggle to protect Storm King over 15 years. Robert Hernan, formerly Assistant Attorney General of NY State, New York State Dept of Law, and Senior Council for Commissioner Initiatives in the New State Department of Environmental Conservation, also joined the discussion.

Why was the Storm King case able to prevail in the moment when it did, and why have the several precedents set by that case continued since then to languish in the courts?

The discussion is part of our study in aesthetics of the relation of natural beauty to art beauty. Storm King State Park, bordered by the Storm King Art Center—one of the largest sculpture parks in the world—and the social and political disputes in which the entire region is situated, present every aspect of the questions concerning aesthetics and contemporary social conflict.

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