Another Specialized Court: Environmental Court

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Specialized courts, whether separate entities or divisions of other courts, handle specific types of cases. They are designed to dispense justice efficiently by maintaining expertise in a particular area, following a procedure tailored to their subject matter, collaborating with other government agencies, or a combination of these approaches.

Specialized courts may be set up not to simply to determine guilt and punishment, but to arrange and supervise treatment for people with mental health or substance abuse problems. Examples of these “accountability” or “collaborative” courts are Drug Courts, Mental Health Courts, and Veterans Courts.

Other specialized courts may be set up to process specific types of cases efficiently, following a procedure tailored to their jurisdiction. Traffic courts are an example; while most traffic cases are heard at certain times in regular municipal or county-level courts, some court systems have set up specialized traffic courts. The Maine Violations Bureau is a statewide traffic court. Most special traffic courts are local, such as the New Orleans Traffic Court.

Environmental Court is another type of court set up to process cases efficiently. The name may suggest a court that hears major environmental protection cases such as industrial pollution. Indeed, courts with nationwide jurisdiction over such matters do exist in some other countries, such as Sweden and China. But environmental courts in the U.S. exist only as divisions or programs of state or local courts, and have much more limited jurisdiction.

The only statewide example is in Vermont, where the Environmental Division of Superior Court hears appeals of state land use and other environmental permit decisions as well as municipal land use and zoning cases.

Environmental courts in other states operate as divisions of county or municipal courts, and only hear cases involving local ordinance violations. Most concern unkempt yards, litter, illegal dumping, and animal complaints. Jurisdiction in some courts may extend to housing and health code violations such as defective plumbing or improper food preparation. Some may include violations of building and zoning regulations, fire codes, and infectious diseases.

Examples can be found in Litte Rock, Arkansas; Cobb County, Georgia; Cumberland and Mecklenburg Counties, North Carolina; and Davidson and Shelby Counties, Tennessee.

These environmental courts may not meet the image conjured by their name, but they’re new and growing. Shelby County Environmental Court’s list of Major Areas of Violation acknowledges that the pollution control area “will see more activity in the future.” You can learn more about some of the existing Environmental Courts by following the links at CourtReference.

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