URBANA – Urbana-born Richard Lazarus is a stellar case of right place, right time.
The Yankee Ridge, Uni High, and University of Illinois product decided to study environmental law in the early 1970s when the discipline was in its infancy. Now a professor at Harvard Law School, he has argued 14 cases before the Supreme Court and participated in 26 others.
What better week for an environmental law pioneer to visit his alma mater than Earth Day?
During Wednesday’s visit to campus, Lazarus discussed his latest book, “The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court,” about the landmark 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA case, which gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s Brown v. Board of Education of Environmental Law,” Lazarus said.
Ahead of his on-campus talks, Lazarus sat down with The News-Gazette to talk about his upbringing at Urbana, notable cases and climate perspectives.
Lazarus described an idyllic childhood growing up on Vermont Street, where children ran around the neighborhood, had free rein in local parks, lived within walking distance of his schools.
“It’s a fabulous place, a wonderful peer group,” Lazarus said. “I’m still close to a lot of my friends from then.”
Richard was the fourth Lazarus to attend and graduate from Uni High, which he did in 1971, aged 16, “looking about 12”. He said the university police routinely asked him to leave campus once he started attending school there. (His in-person 50th class reunion is approaching.)
After a semester at UI, Lazarus traveled across Europe for his second. Across the Atlantic, Lazarus reflected on his career path with breathtaking dynamism: matching what he loved, with what he was good at.
He was always politically active, but could do science and math. Environmentalism was on the rise, with Earth Day instituted in 1970; he found his match.
Upon returning to campus, Lazarus flipped through the pages of the course catalog, looking for majors that would signal a career in “environmental law.” Two jumped out at him: chemistry, for which the user interface was famous, and economics, which he had never studied in his life. After a brief consultation, he declared his double major.
The content was helpful, but it was the learning processes and rigor that prepared him for life in the courtroom. On the one hand, he learned that with enough effort, concepts that seem “inaccessible and impenetrable” can be solved.
In “Chem 122: Quantitative Analysis”, he learned how to reduce a 12 hour paper experiment to 4 hours. Which steps can be quick and sloppy, which need to be precise? Which steps can be simultaneous, which must be consecutive?
“That skill set, of ‘I have a task, how can I order it and sequence it,’ was hugely beneficial,” Lazarus said. “That’s how I prepare for Supreme Court arguments.”
This is how Lazarus approached one of his greatest tests of this century: investigating the root causes of the 2010 BP oil spill, the largest in US history. What should have taken the commission two years took six months, Lazarus said, and he thanks this class for that.
He has lent his legal expertise to two presidential transition teams, one in 1992-93 for the transition from George HW Bush to Bill Clinton, and another in 2020-21 for the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Both were “incredibly labor intensive”, said Lazarus – the second much more so than the first
But nothing beats the thrill of arguing before the Supreme Court.
“It’s an explosion,” he said.
“You’re there for 30 minutes, but you get asked 50 to 70 questions,” Lazarus said. “They constantly interrupt you and all the judges are very smart. You need to anticipate all the possible questions they might ask you.
There are ungodly amounts of preparation involved, usually 150 hours or more, he said, and the highest stakes. Each answer should sound natural, but serve the larger argument to a tee.
But the weight is not lost on Lazare. In no other branch of government can a person tell officials precisely how to think. The closing arguments are the first time the judges discuss the case, and they use the arguers as a conduit.
Naturally, Lazarus rewards his victories in court, both in business and in the small interactions of the theatrical environment. In its most recent case, Murr v. Wisconsin of 2017, regarding federal land regulation, one task he had was to explain why combined ownership is worth more than separate ownership.
So Lazarus consulted a former Yankee Ridge classmate, John Geanakoplos, now an economics professor at Yale University, for some advice. The principle Lazarus was looking for had a name, the principle of complementarity, so the two examples debated, like how the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is what makes a cup of Reese’s so delicious. Same thing with chocolate syrup and ice cream in a sundae.
What Lazarus ultimately used in court, just over 6 feet from Chief Justice John Roberts, was the example of two shoes. One is precious, of course, but two together is much better.
“Chief Roberts rolled his eyes in bewilderment,” Lazarus said. Turns out the two were roommates from Harvard Law School. “He never voted for me in any case I worked on.”
And yet, pleading for Wisconsin, Lazarus won the case 5-3. Judge Anthony Kennedy wrote the plurality opinion, ruling that “in a matter of regulatory revenue, two adjoining parcels that are legally separate but held in common should be combined for the purpose of revenue analysis.” He referenced complementarity in his writing.
Today, Lazarus remains focused on training the next generation of environmental lawyers, at Harvard and elsewhere. He has another book on the way, summarizing the past 50 years of his discipline and how it has changed over the past 20.
“When I finished my first book in 2000, I thought I saw environmental law taking hold in the legal landscape,” he said. “The past 20 years have been tumultuous. We had a presidential boost, in both directions.
During the same period, the issue of climate change has come to the fore. Congress rarely legislates on environmental issues – the Clean Air Act was last amended in 1990, the Clean Water Act in 1987 – while executive leadership on climate has swung when he needed to stabilize, Lazarus said.
“On the pitch it’s very difficult to be optimistic,” he said. “We have a war that threatens to spread and that undermines our ability to solve the climate problem. A shaky economy that makes things harder too. And a bewildering polarization.
Still, some signs in the private sector give him some hope, he said, as do his diligent students, who are “very engaged on issues of climate, food, safety and so on.” .
On his way from Indianapolis Airport to Urbana, he was greeted by “I don’t even know how many” wind turbines dotted across I-74.
“There is no place where I prefer to talk about my work. A world-class university with fabulous students, no better place to come back to than Urbana,” said Lazarus.