By James Ehlers
As you know, 2019 is a constitutional amendment year, with the next one not coming until 2023. For this reason, I ask, on behalf of a broad constituency of Vermonters, for your consideration of and assistance in amending our Vermont Constitution beginning this coming legislative session.
Vermont’s Bill of Rights, Chapter I of the Constitution, includes 22 paragraphs protecting private property, civil rights, religious rights, the right to a jury trial, the right of assembly and to petition for grievances. It protects everything but the environment. It is deficient in that respect. It is difficult if not impossible for Vermonters to avail ourselves of our “natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” when private interests and government agencies are poisoning and polluting the most fundamental of necessities for life itself — clean air and safe water.
Would you initiate the amending process to guarantee our right to protect the commons and our personal interest in property, safety, and happiness? Proposals of amendment must begin in the Senate. The amending process for the Vermont Constitution is found in Chapter II, Sec. 72. An article might read this way, at the suggestion of constitutional law expert attorney Paul Gillies:
That all people have a natural and inherent right to a clean and unspoiled environment.
Article 1, Section 27, of the Pennsylvania Constitution, as one example, already reads:
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.
“Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.
“As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”
In a state such as ours, where a healthy environment is the very foundation of our economy and our social fabric, the declining state of our recreational and drinking waters and the threats of a changing climate demand that we enjoy, at a minimum, the same legal protections as Pennsylvanians from those who would exploit our shared natural resources.
Attorney Gillies notes, “It [the amendment] is a ratification of all the good work Vermont has done with its anti-billboard law, recyclables law, Act 250, Act 64, and other statements of environmental commitment.” Most importantly, however, it will empower the people in the courts when the other branches are remiss in their moral and legal obligation to the public trust, the common good.
Can we and future generations count on your leadership, Senators?
I personally stand ready to assist you in advancing this important initiative in this legislative session and the next.
James Ehlers is executive director of Lake Champlain International