It is too easy this winter to miss the signature Human Rights event in New York, the overwhelming vote last November 4th to recognizing the Human Right to the Environment. Competition for our attention is fierce: the Pandemic, political rivalries playing out in Washington, D.C., and angst about extreme weather events and other climate change impacts. So, I welcome this opportunity to illuminate the hope and promise of Article 1, Section 19 in New York’s Bill of Rights: “Each Person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” Most New York lawyers have yet to explore the scope of the Human Right to the Environment. The more precise legal meaning of New York’s Environmental Rights is the province of our judiciary and Court of Appeals. But their effectiveness is the shared responsibility of the Governor, and every other official in New York. Rule 1.1 of the NY Rules of Professional Conduct obliges all lawyers to know, observe and apply the Bill of Rights when advising clients. Human Rights are universal norms, guiding all government officials. Ultimately, all persons hold these Rights to the Environment. This Outline offers a threshold briefing about the NY Bill of Rights’ newly minted Article 1, Section 19. Others doubtless will proffer different professional judgements on the issues raised herein, but all can agree that when NY voters amended the Bill of Rights, they decided that our birthrights to breathe and for potable water and to enjoy a healthful environment deserve the most powerful legal protection our State can afford. Like due process of law, these environmental rights are framed in elegant and plain English. New York’s Environmental Rights are expressed more forcefully and gracefully than in any other constitution. We lawyers have a solemn responsibility duty to breathe life into this legal bulwark for ensuring each person’s fundamental birth rights. Our obligation is to serve our Constitution’s Bill of Rights as if life itself depends on our actions. As biodiversity plumets and climate disruption grows, it just might.
Prof. Nicholas A. Robinson, Professor, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, Presentation at the N.Y.S. Bar Association Annual Meeting before the Environment and Energy Law Section (Jan. 25, 2022), https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/lawfaculty/1205/.