Climate Impact LA, Part 1: City Attorneys and Environmental Justice

For this first post and video on behalf of Climate Impact LA, it seemed best to tackle a question that keeps all of us up at night on a regular basis:

What in the world do City Attorneys do?

You may be wondering what a single city’s lawyer has to do with climate change or environmental justice, but the answer might surprise you. City Attorneys are actually tremendously powerful and have the ability to shape environmental policy, raise the profile of environmental justice issues, and hold climate change enablers to account—if they choose to do so.

This post will focus on Los Angeles specifically, but the same responsibilities apply to most City Attorneys across the country. First off, let’s answer some basic questions:

What is a City Attorney?

Simply put, a City Attorney is a lawyer who goes to court on behalf of a city.

What do City Attorneys do?

One of the most important things that City Attorneys do is prosecute cases on behalf of their cities against people, organizations, companies, or government entities (e.g., suing Wells Fargo or the federal government). Specifically, City Attorneys prosecute civil cases and misdemeanors and represent the city in all civil cases, including defending the city when it is sued. Other cases (like criminal cases, felonies, and cases involving unincorporated areas of LA County) are handled by the District Attorney.

City Attorneys don’t just handle litigation in court, though. They also draft ordinances and resolutions for a city, essentially writing the policy that will become law if and when those documents are approved by the City Council. Moreover, they advise the City Council on a broad range of policy issues, provide legal counsel about legal issues facing the city, monitor state and federal legislation that might impact the city, and write and review city contracts. City Attorneys have influence in many different spheres of local governance, positioning the office as a potentially powerful piece of any city’s policy puzzle (alliteration intended).

How do City Attorneys shape environmental policy?

One key domain of the City Attorney in all of the roles described above is environmental policy. City Attorneys are often crucial in advising a City Council as well as City Commissions and Boards on land use, zoning, and environmental issues. This is the most direct way the City Attorney can shape a city’s pursuit of environmental justice. For example, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer recently advised the City Council that it would be legal to declare oil and gas drilling to be a non-compliant land use, and he is currently drafting a zoning ordinance to potentially codify that advice into law.

Can the influence of one City Attorney be scaled up?

City Attorneys have power in numbers and can sway policy narratives through coalition building. For instance, City Attorney Feuer co-founded an organization called Prosecutors Against Gun Violence, which has united City Attorneys and other prosecutors around gun control and safety, allowing them to advocate for policy priorities and amplify their message across many different cities. A City Attorney could form a similar coalition for environmental justice, tapping into the abundance of environmental legal expertise across the country to establish shared commitments and to consolidate power to combat climate change. 

It would make perfect sense for Los Angeles to be leading an effort like that, and that’s what these first two videos aim to show. Working together, City Attorneys could help move the needle on environmental justice and develop best practices for local policies, while also taking advantage of another tool City Attorneys have: amicus briefs. City Attorneys can exert influence on cases at the state and federal levels (that have profound implications for climate change law and policy) by submitting letters that advise the courts and encourage them to support a particular decision. Few City Attorney offices utilize the full range of messaging and influencing tactics that they have at their disposal, so Los Angeles’ office has the opportunity to pave the way.

The harmful effects of climate change are only getting worse, and we have no time to lose. Right now, in fact, the LA City Council is creating a Climate Emergency Mobilization Office. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment and, like in other emergencies, it requires everyone to stop what they are doing and shift focus to the task at hand. If climate change really is an emergency, as LA has now acknowledged, all city officials must deploy every possible tool in their toolkits to help prevent a climate catastrophe. City Attorneys have a plethora of opportunities to join the cause and prioritize environmental justice—and, as elected officials, they are accountable to us, the voters. 

We all have the power to demand environmental justice from our City Attorneys. Let’s start right now.

Check out the first video above (or on YouTube here), sign our petition here, and check back here next week for the next installment of Climate Impact LA!

James Crisafulli
Climate Impact LA
EG Partner
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