CELDF  Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

About Us

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit, public interest law firm providing free and affordable legal services to communities facing threats to their local environment, local agriculture, the local economy, and quality of life.  Our mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature.

Established in 1995, the Legal Defense Fund has now become the principal advisor to community groups and municipal governments struggling to transition from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over corporations.

Through grassroots organizing, public education and outreach, legal assistance, and drafting of ordinances, we have now assisted over 110 municipalities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Virginia to draft and adopt new laws with over 350,000 people living under these governing frameworks.  These laws address activities such as corporate water withdrawals, longwall coal mining, factory farming, the land application of sewage sludge, and uranium mining.

History

CELDF was formed in 1995 in Pennsylvania by Thomas Linzey, Executive Director, and Stacey Schmader, Administrative Director, to provide free and affordable legal services to community groups.  Over the first several years, we assisted hundreds of communities in Pennsylvania facing unwanted corporate development projects such as incinerators and quarries.    

We assisted these communities to try to stop the projects by appealing corporate permit applications through the state’s environmental regulatory system.  We were very successful appealing permits, finding the holes and omissions that would render them incomplete.   As such, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Hearing Board would toss out the permits, and our communities would celebrate their “victory,” believing the system of law had worked.

However, the corporation could and would simply file another permit, this time filling in the holes and omissions we had cited.  Once the corporation filed an administratively complete permit application, the state was automatically required to approve it.  The communities would ask us to appeal the permit again, but there was nothing left for us to do.   We couldn’t help them.   The law in Pennsylvania, as in every other state, works the same way.  The state legalizes an activity – such as mining, or commercial water withdrawals, or factory farming – and communities are legally prohibited from saying “no” to it.  

After experiencing how the regulatory system operated over several years and seeing our communities lose time and time again, we determined that in order to help them, we would need to do our work differently.  This led to an evolution of our thinking and our work.  

Beginning in 1998, we began to assist communities to draft and adopt legally binding laws in which they asserted their right to self-govern.  Initially, our work focused on communities facing corporate factory farms and later the application of sewage sludge to farmland.  Communities across Pennsylvania adopted our anti-corporate farming and anti-corporate sludging laws.

To accommodate the growing interest in our work, with calls coming in from across the country, we launched the Daniel Pennock Democracy Schools in 2003, which have become a critical tool in our grassroots organizing.  Communities facing other corporate threats – such as uranium mining in Virginia and commercial water withdrawals in New England – began to take on this work.  

The Legal Defense Fund has now become the principal advisor to activists, community groups, and municipal governments struggling to transition from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over corporations. 

We've now taught nearly 200 Democracy Schools across the country and over 100 communities have adopted Legal Defense Fund-drafted ordinances.


Rights of Nature

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is working with communities that recognize that environmental protection cannot be attained under a structure of law that treats natural communities and ecosystems as property.  

By most every measure, the environment today is in worse shape than when the major U.S. environmental laws were adopted over thirty years ago.  Since then, countries around the world have sought to replicate these laws.  Yet, species decline worldwide is increasing exponentially, global warming is far more accelerated than previously believed, deforestation continues unabated around the world, and overfishing by corporate trawlers in the world’s oceans is pushing many fisheries to collapse.

These laws – including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws – legalize environmental harms by regulating how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur under law.  Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, these laws instead codify it.  In addition, under commonly understood terms of preemption, once these activities are legalized by federal or state governments, local governments are prohibited from banning them.

In the U.S., title to property carries with it the legal authority to destroy the natural communities and ecosystems that depend upon that property for survival.  In fact, environmental laws in the U.S. were passed under the authority of the Commerce Clause, which grants exclusive authority over “interstate commerce” to Congress.  Treating nature as commerce has meant that all existing environmental law frameworks in the U.S. are anchored in the concept of nature as property.

The Legal Defense Fund has assisted communities to craft and adopt new laws that change the status of natural communities and ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities.  

Those local laws recognize that natural communities and ecosystems possess an inalienable and fundamental right to exist and flourish, and that residents of those communities possess the legal authority to enforce those rights on behalf of those ecosystems.  In addition, these laws require the governmental apparatus to remedy violations of those ecosystem rights.

The Rights of Nature Ordinance, which originally began as a separate, stand-alone ordinance, has now been integrated into all of the other substantive ordinances generated by the Legal Defense Fund.  Thus, when an Anti-Corporate Sewage Sludge Ordinance is now adopted, ecosystems within that community are recognized as having rights, and thus, individuals can now confront corporations with the rights of both people living in the community as well as the rights of natural communities harmed by the corporation.

In essence, these laws represent changes to the status of property law in the U.S., eliminating the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that exist and depend upon that property for their existence and flourishing.  They do not stop development; rather they stop development and use of property that interferes with the existence and vitality of those ecosystems.

Because corporate “rights” are usually wielded to destroy ecosystems, efforts to change the status of ecosystems under the law inevitably proceed hand in hand with efforts to strip corporations of legal and governing authority under the structure of law.  Thus, this struggle for ecosystem rights has also become a struggle to eliminate certain claims of corporate “rights.”


Ecuador Constitution


The Legal Defense Fund was invited to assist Delegates to the Ecuador Constitutional Assembly to re-write that country’s constitution.  Delegates asked us to draft proposed Rights of Nature language for the constitution based on ordinances we’ve developed and helped adopt in communities in the U.S.  

The new constitution was approved by an overwhelming margin through a national referendum vote on September 28, 2008.  With that vote, Ecuador became the first country in the world to codify a new system of environmental protection based on rights, leading the way for countries around the world to make this necessary and fundamental change in how we protect nature. 


What is Democracy School?

The Daniel Pennock Democracy School is a stimulating and illuminating course that teaches citizens and activists how to reframe exhausting and often discouraging single issue work (such as opposing toxic dumps, quarries, factory farms, etc.) in a way that we can confront corporate control on a powerful single front: people’s constitutional rights.

Democracy School explores the limits of conventional regulatory organizing and offers a new organizing model that helps citizens confront the usurpation by corporations of the rights of communities, people, and the earth. Lectures cover the history of people's movements and corporate power, and the dramatic recent organizing in Pennsylvania by communities confronting agribusiness, sewage sludge, and quarry corporations. Included with enrollment in the Democracy School is a 300 plus-page notebook of background reading material. For a historical review of the Pennsylvania work through the end of 2003, see a feature article that appeared in Orion Magazine.

Created by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and Richard Grossman, co-founder of the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy (POCLAD), Democracy Schools were launched with five weekend sessions at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 2003. Since then, the number of schools has grown rapidly. In 2006, there are over a dozen locations across the country offering Democracy Schools, so peruse our list and find a school near you!

The Schools are built around carefully designed readings, clear presentations and group discussions.

    * Each School reveals how it came to be that the law enables corporate managers to dictate their values, and impose their projects on communities.
    * Includes an intense, comprehensive history of the judicial bestowal of constitutional rights of persons on corporations.
    * Learn the secret of how People’s Movements have cut to the essence and won their struggles to be “found” in the constitution.

    *           The Anti-Federalists
    *           The Abolitionists
    *           The Suffragists
    *           The Populists
    *           The Labor Movement

    * And learn about earlier Movements, including the Levelers and the Diggers.
    * Experience the story of Pennsylvania communities, and New England Town Meetings, as well as North Western city battles – in the ongoing struggle to take the power to govern out of the Corporate Boardrooms and put it back in our communities where it belongs.
    * For people of all ages, interests and occupations
    * Classes consist of small groups of 10-15 people like you.


"If you take no other training this year, do the Democracy School. It is a superlative unfolding revelation of how corporations have hijacked democracy. It meticulously deconstructs the historical arc that brought us to this precipice. But most importantly, it then departs into the highly pragmatic and inspiring work now underway that is slowly turning the tide . . . This Second American Revolution may be the most important political work going on anywhere in the country or the world."

-Kenny Ausubel ‘05, Founder and Co-Executive Director, Bioneers


"Democracy School was a mind-blowing experience. During the School, I was forced to come to grips with the understanding that I really knew very little about the true structure of law that controls our activism. Democracy School is a must for everyone who seeks to be liberated from our defensive, after-the-fact reactive organizing strategies."

-Krishnaveni Gundu, ’05, Calhoun County (TX) Resource Watch

Join:

Thomas Linzey, Esquire, Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). Co-author of Be the Change: How To Get What You Want in Your Community, and co-author of the Model Brief to Eliminate Corporate Rights.

Ben Price, Projects Director for the Corporations and Democracy Program. Community Rights Organizer.

Mari Margil, Associate Director of the Legal Defense Fund.

Gail Darrell, New England Community Rights Organizer.

Shannon Biggs, California Community Rights Organizer and Global Exchange partner; co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grass Roots

Eme Lybarger, Ohio Organizer and school lecturer.

And other qualified and certified Democracy School lecturers.

Democracy School is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Pennock, a 17-year-old boy from Berks County, Pennsylvania, who died in 1995 after being exposed involuntarily to land applied sewage sludge. Daniel's parents, Antoinette and Russell Pennock, have traveled across Pennsylvania to end the practice of sludge disposal by which waste management corporations reap massive profits hauling and spreading sludge on farmland. Their work has inspired ours.
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