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Lake Erie Bill of Rights declared unconstitutional

Lake Erie at Massie Cliffside Preserve.
Rebecca Williams
Michigan Radio

An Ohio judge has declared the Lake Erie Bill of Rights to be unconstitutional. Judge Jack Zouhary called his decision “not even close” and declared the bill invalid in its entirety.

The bill was approved by Toledo voters in a special election in 2019, passing with 61 percent of the vote. It was immediately challenged by the Drewes Farm Collective, who said that LEBOR was a liability to its business. Drewes Farms says it fertilizes its fields “pursuant to Ohio law, best practices, [and] scientific recommendations,” but it can never guarantee that all of its runoff can be prevented from entering the Lake Erie watershed. 

The lawsuit was filed against the city of Toledo because LEBOR became a part of the city’s charter once approved by voters.

The bill declares that Lake Erie and the Lake Erie watershed possess the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” and says its ecosystem includes “all natural water features, communities of organisms, soil, as well as terrestrial and aquatic sub ecosystems that are a part of Lake Erie.” It also states that the people of the city of Toledo have a right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes a clean Lake Erie.

Judge Zouhary said in his decision that LEBOR “is unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio.” He notes that the bill “employed language that sounds powerful but has no practical meaning. Under even the most forgiving standard, the environmental rights identified in LEBOR are void for vagueness.” 

He also asks, “What conduct infringes the right of Lake Erie and its watershed to ‘exist, flourish, and naturally evolve’? How would a prosecutor, judge, or jury decide? LEBOR offers no guidance.”

Crystal Jankowski is an organizer for Toledoans for Safe Water. She and other organizers with the group helped to draft the bill and gain community support for it.

She says she and other organizers were disappointed, but not surprised by Zouhary’s ruling. 

“We were able to make a lot of noise, and bring it to people's attention. And people are paying attention. You know, they see how our values are evolving as a society, and eventually, our laws will follow.”

She says Toledoans for Safe Water will continue to advocate to keep Lake Erie.

“They're not trying to stop it. They're allowing more waste to come in. They're not stopping, and we can't stop. It's a blow, but we knew it was coming. It has energized us even more.”

She says it’s too early to tell if the city will appeal the decision.


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Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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