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August 06, 2021

Alum Writes Briefs and Presents Oral Argument; Federal District Court Rules in Favor

Michael Benjamin Smith ’21 presented oral argument in an Earthrise lawsuit involving aquatic species and mercury pollution in Idaho, and the Judge ruled in his favor.
  • Michael Benjamin Smith ’21 in front of the James A. McClure Federal. Building & United States Courthouse.

On June 16, 2021, former Earthrise clinic student Michael Benjamin Smith ’21 and Earthrise Co-Director Allison LaPlante appeared before Judge David Nye of the United States District Court for the District of Idaho. Occurring at the James A. McClure Federal Building and Courthouse in Boise, ID, this court session was Earthrise’s first in-person argument since the beginning of the pandemic.

Smith argued a partial motion for summary judgment about the inadequacy of efforts by the EPA and the State of Idaho to protect aquatic species from mercury pollution. Of related concern, mercury builds up in the food chain, traveling from fish and ultimately ending up in humans.

On July 19, Judge Nye issued a 36-page opinion, which is nothing short of a sweeping victory for the plaintiffs. The court adopted Earthrise’s and Smith’s arguments, finding that EPA had violated its mandatory duty under the Clean Water Act to adopt mercury water quality standards for Idaho, after the state’s failure to do so. “This is a win for aquatic life in Idaho and will likely have implications beyond this specific case as far as EPA’s responsibilities under the Clean Water Act,” said Smith.

Although the suit has been ongoing for the past seven years, Smith’s first assignment as a law student in the clinic involved a ground-level review of the administrative record to draft a statement of facts. Learning the subtle factual details became an important foundation for key legal points. “Working on the case for so long gave me some confidence because I had come to believe we were right on the law. My supervising attorneys at Earthrise, Allison LaPlante and Kevin Cassidy, provided a great balance of autonomy and supervision. They allowed me to draft substantial portions of the briefing at every stage of the summary judgment process, which was really exciting. I’m just so grateful to the Earthrise faculty and our clients, Northwest Environmental Advocates and Idaho Conservation League, for giving me the opportunity and supporting me throughout the process.

Speaking of his experience arguing in front of court for the first time, Smith shared that, “The biggest challenge I had was just slowing down. I had practiced running through my arguments and varying my pace, running over the less complicated points more quickly so that I could cover everything I wanted. That might have been a fantastic strategy had it not been for an actual court reporter trying to write down every word I said in real time. She was very nice about asking me to slow down.”

Earthrise is the law school’s environmental litigation clinic. At Earthrise, students work directly with clinical faculty on all aspects of litigation. Earthrise Co-Director, Allison LaPlante, said this about Smith’s role: “When an exceptional student, like Michael, comes along, and the timing aligns, Earthrise attempts to provide as much ‘real life’ experience as possible, including presenting oral argument. Michael was phenomenal in court, and his written advocacy during the briefing process was equally impressive.”