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Bill Would Create Special Courts for Land Use CasesSenator Ellen Corbett's SB 123 would require every county to create departments to handle CEQA and other environmental litigation.
2013-01-23 05:19:17 PM
SACRAMENTO An East Bay senator has introduced legislation that would create specialty environmental and land-use divisions in California's trial courts.
Senator Ellen Corbett's SB 123 would create the mission-focused calendars to handle civil litigation involving the California Environmental Quality Act or "specified subject areas" like climate change, air quality and hazardous materials.
"California's environmental and land-use court cases should be decided by specialized judges trained in environmental and land-use law, and whose decisions would be documented and published," the bill says. "It is important that the judicial selection process be unbiased."
Corbett, a San Leandro Democrat, was unavailable to comment on her bill Wednesday, according to her chief of staff, Andrew LaMar. LaMar also declined to discuss the legislation.
SB 123 does not identify any sponsoring organization, and it leaves many questions unanswered. Courts in small counties may be hard-pressed to find the time and training for one judge to specialize in complex land-use or environmental matters. Also, the bill does not include any money to set up the specialty courts.
SB 123 does authorize the Judicial Council to draft a rule of court specifying what kind of cases would be assigned to the environmental court. The council would also be charged with setting educational requirements and "other qualifications" for judges handling the specialty calendar.
"The senator raises a very important public policy issue but also some significant concerns," said Cory Jasperson, director of the council's Office of Governmental Affairs. "The Judicial Council has historically opposed specialty courts tax courts, business courts and the concern would be that this would mandate every court to have environmental and land-use courts. There would be significant funding issues."
State law already requires courts in counties with more than 200,000 residents to have at least one judge with CEQA expertise.
"My sense is this is a good faith effort to try to expedite judicial decision making in these matters," said Robert "Perl" Perlmutter, a partner with the environmental law firm of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, who had just seen SB 123 for the first time Wednesday afternoon.
The National Center for State Courts has identified 10 states that are home to courts with some type of specialized environmental focus, although the size and breadth of their work vary greatly.
Environmental groups have reacted cautiously to the bill in light of the behind-the-scenes work currently going on in the Legislature to revamp CEQA. Corbett, however, is generally recognized as a strong CEQA supporter who has been strongly backed in past elections by environmental lobbies.
"There have been some concerns," said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League. "The devil's in the details."