Lake Erie Bill of Rights found “unconstitutionally vague” by Northern District of Ohio

Bricker & Eckler LLP

Bricker & Eckler LLP

Drewes Farms Partnership and State of Ohio v. City of Toledo, Case No. 3:19-cv-434, Doc. 63 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 27, 2020).

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) was invalidated by U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary of the Northern District of Ohio. He issued an eight-page ruling that his decision was “not a close call” because he believes the citizen-led referendum “is unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio.” In his ruling, Judge Zouhary said Toledoans for Safe Water used language “that sounds powerful but has no practical meaning” when writing LEBOR, and that the document’s purported right to self-governance is “an aspirational statement, not a rule of law.” He found that “[u]nder even the most forgiving standard, the environmental rights identified in LEBOR are void for vagueness[.]” For all the power the law gave the city and its residents, Judge Zouhary wrote that its language does not clearly spell out key issues, such as what constitutes an infringement on the Lake’s rights, how a judge would decide what was a violation or even what constitutes a “clean and healthy environment.” The Court also found it unclear whether certain activities – such as catching fish, dredging a river, driving a gas-fueled vehicle or planting corn – would run afoul of the law.

LEBOR was approved by Toledo voters at a special election on February 26, 2019. The legal challenge that is the subject of this lawsuit was filed the next day, February 27, 2019, by Drewes Farms Partnership, a local farming operation in Wood County. The law, passed as an amendment to the city’s municipal charter, allowed the city and its residents to sue businesses and governments on the Lake’s behalf. The law also invalidated conflicting state laws and regulations and takes precedence over federal permits and licenses. Judge Zouhary ultimately found that LEBOR’s authors “ignored basic legal principles and constitutional limitations” in his decision striking down the law.  It is not yet clear whether an appeal will be taken. 

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