This November New York state voters will be asked to decide whether to amend the New York State Constitution to create an individual right to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment. The proposed environmental rights amendment (the Amendment) would add a new §19 to Article 1—the section titled “bill of rights.” If history is any guide, voters are likely to approve it. New York voters have approved 19 of the 25 ballot amendments referred by the legislature since 1995. While the clear intent is to increase protections for individual New Yorkers from environmental hazards ranging from tainted drinking water to asthma-inducing air pollution, the Amendment is vaguely worded—the entire text reads “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water and a healthful environment”—and thus its full implications are unclear and subject to judicial interpretation. This article considers what the Amendment might mean for New Yorkers, lawyers and courts.
Proposed amendments to the Constitution may only be sent to the voters for a referendum if they are approved by both houses of the New York state legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions. See NYS Const. Art. XIX §1. The Amendment was first introduced during the 2017-2018 legislative session and passed by the Assembly, but never made it out of committee in the Senate. It was reintroduced in the 2019-2020 legislative session and approved by both houses. Finally, as required under Article XIX, it was sent again to the legislature after the 2020 elections and approved by lopsided votes of both houses early in the 2021-2022 legislative session.