Attorney in Colorado River lawsuit refuses to withdraw suit despite threats of sanctions from state

Lance Maggart
Sky-Hi News
A pair of fly fishermen work the Colorado River in Byers Canyon west of Hot Sulphur Springs. If a group of environmental activists get their way the river could be declared a legal person with rights and standing in the courts.
Lance Maggart/Sky-Hi News


Flores-Williams and the Plaintiffs in the case are asking the court to declare the Colorado River a legal person and are not seeking a monetary award. While the personhood request has significance on many levels one of the most important aspects relates to the legal concept of “standing”. Standing, or locus standi, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a right to appear in a court or before any body on a given question, a right to be heard.”

In essence a party must have “standing” before that party can bring legal action, including lawsuits, against any other party. There are multiple aspects to standing in state and federal courts but key aspects of standing include requiring the plaintiff to show the plaintiff has suffered some injury or harm – not necessarily physical – showing the injury has a connection to the conduct brought before the court, and showing that favorable action from the court will redress the injury.

Because the Colorado River is not considered a legal person it has no formal right to standing, no matter the particular circumstances surrounding a given issue. If the Colorado River is declared a legal person it could have “standing” regarding a host of issues and could potentially sue to protect its rights.

The plaintiffs in the case, who are asking the court to declare them as “next friends” capable of representing the river in court, would be able to bring legal action on behalf of the river in circumstances where the river is deemed to have standing.

There are many examples of nonhuman entities existing as “legal persons” including corporations and nations though there are very few examples of environmental features being declared “legal persons.”

The Colorado Attorney General’s office is not happy with the Denver civil rights lawyer who is helping sue the state in hopes of having the Colorado River declared a person, as the office has threatened sanctions against the man if the suit is not withdrawn.

Representatives for the plaintiffs in the case announced Tuesday morning that the office of Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman issued an ultimatum to attorney Jason Flores-Williams stating he must voluntarily withdraw the lawsuit against the state, which seeks the Colorado River be declared a person with legal rights, or face sanctions from the state.

The state alleges Flores-Williams failed to conduct a reasonable inquiry into the law and facts prior to filing his complaint and that he also failed to address “numerous other deficiencies” that the state highlighted in its motion to dismiss. The state’s letter to Flores-Williams requesting the attorney withdraw the lawsuit closes with the threat of sanctions.

“If you choose not to voluntarily withdraw your Amended Complaint with prejudice by the close of business Nov. 30, you are hereby on notice that the Defendant will pursue all sanctions and remedies,” Scott Steinbrecher, senior assistant attorney general, stated in his letter to Flores-Williams, before highlighting the relevant federal statutes.

For his part, Flores-Williams is not backing down.

“When one opines on the unethical legal practices that the Attorney General has never threatened to sanction — banking firms who fraudulently foreclosed on homes, corporate attorneys who helped privatize our water to sell it back to us — the agenda here becomes clear,” Flores-Williams said. “It is not enough to simply defeat this doctrine, but you must injure the attorney who brought it, so that others will refrain from attempting to address the gross disparity between corporate rights and the natural world.”

Flores-Williams announced that he will not be withdrawing the lawsuit and issued a four-page response to the state explaining why he refuses to take that action.

“The attorney general’s threat of sanctions is a legally baseless attempt to harass and intimidate a civil rights attorney in good standing who has dedicated his career to protecting the powerless from the powerful,” Flores-Williams stated at the opening of his response. “The amended complaint will not be withdrawn. Legally, it should not be. Morally, it cannot be.”

In his response, Flores-Williams highlighted that the concept of legal rights for nature and environmental systems was first conceptualized in the United States Supreme Court by Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote a dissenting opinion in the 1972 case, Sierra Club vs. Morton, involving an attempt to construct a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In his dissent, Douglas argued that natural resources should have legal standing to sue for their own protections.

Flores-Williams pointed out in his response that other nations have recently declared rivers as legal persons. In March, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was declared a legal person. Shortly after, a court in India declared the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers as legal persons.

“Our lawsuit seeks the same rights for the Colorado River that abstract legal fictions like corporations already possess,” Flores-Williams stated. “