The Flint water crisis, linked to more than a dozen deaths and devastating health consequences for many residents of the Michigan city, raises fundamental questions about governance and justice, Michigan Special Assistant Attorney General Noah Hall told an audience Feb. 8 at the first Chapman Dialogue lecture of 2018 at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law.
“The residents of Flint spent two years drinking water that is deadly, plain and simple,” said Hall, also a professor of law at Wayne State University Law School. “It’s killed people in Flint and shortened lifespans in Flint, destroyed IQs in Flint, destroyed health in Flint.”
Co-sponsored by the Schmid College of Science and Technology, the dialogue was assisted by commenter Jason Keller, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences.
Flint’s water crisis unfolded after the state took over the city’s finances because of budget deficits and the city turned to the Flint River as a residential water source, resulting in insufficiently treated water tainted with lead flowing into residents’ homes.
“The people in Flint drank that water for two years instead of using the safe water that was previously available and coming through from Detroit and Lake Huron because of a governance decision, and it was a governance decision made by somebody who was not elected or accountable to the people who have to live with the consequences of that decision,” Hall said.
As a special assistant to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Hall is charged with seeking justice on behalf of the people of Michigan.
“For me, justice is not people behind bars or paying a lot of money, frankly. I view people behind bars or moving money around as maybe the best we can do at this moment to give people a sense of justice, but those are certainly Band-Aids at best,” Hall said. “They don’t give people their lives back or restore their children or their families or their health.”
Hall said there is a three-part plan in motion:
- Criminal charges. Fourteen current or former government officials face criminal charges, including five charged with felony involuntary manslaughter in connection with deaths in the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak linked to the contaminated water supply.
- Civil cases. The Michigan Attorney General’s office has sued two engineering firms for their roles in the crisis for negligence, public nuisance, and in one case, fraud.
- Constitutional civil rights claims. These are claims against state and federal government officials involved for violating residents’ constitutional rights, Hall said.
“All these are very challenging,” Hall said. In particular, Hall suggested that the success of the constitutional claims would hinge in part on the courts recognizing a constitutional right to environment, including an individual right to drink safe water. While Hall notes that courts have previously “all but uniformly rejected this,” he hopes the Flint cases will establish a new legal precedent.
“Sometimes when the legal system is hit with something that so clearly shows the flaws and the shortcomings and the folks being left behind, the legal system is forced to change,” Hall said in summarizing the issues. “I do hold out hope that the constitutional right to environment is going to be one of the silver linings that will emerge from the Flint water crisis.”
The Chapman Dialogue Series
The lunchtime lecture series features innovative and thought-provoking legal scholars as well as some of the nation’s most prominent practitioners, leaders in business and politicians, speaking on topics of current interest. Speakers present their research and ideas to a wide audience of faculty, students, alumni and special guests. Each dialogue concludes with a question-and-answer session, typically led by Fowler Law faculty. Upcoming events include a talk on free speech on campus and a dialogue on the evolution of the sports business with Peter Ueberroth on March 15.
Next in the series:
Free Speech on Campus with Eduardo M. Peñalver, March 6
Cornell Law School Dean Eduardo M. Peñalver’s talk on “Protecting Free Speech and Maintaining an Inclusive Campus Culture” on Tuesday, March 6, strikes at the current challenge on many campuses to protect free speech while maintaining security. Peñalver, appointed the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law at Cornell in 2014, previously was the John P. Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. A former Rhodes Scholar, Peñalver earned a degree from Yale Law School and clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Display image at top/Noah Hall, Michigan special assistant attorney general and Wayne State University professor of law, speaks at the Chapman Dialogue lecture. (Photo/Livi Dom ’20)