top of page

An Environmental Court
Planning Guide for Local
Officials, Legal Professionals
and Community Educators

Developed by Keep America Beautiful, Inc.


Keep America Beautiful's (KAB) role in the area of environmental courts is a direct result of our community affiliates long-standing involvement in local efforts to reduce litter and improve community waste handling practices. For many affiliates, the efforts have included the review and/or revision of litter and solid waste ordinances in cooperation with their local governments. In 1978, the nation's first environmental court was established in Indianapolis, Indiana. An ordinance review by the Indianapolis Clean City Commission provided the catalyst for its formation. After discovering city inspectors reported a daily average of 45 violations in the city's waste management and environmental codes, the committee recognized the need for a special court to hear environmental cases.

Armed with the facts, the Indianapolis affiliate proposed the concept of the new court to Mayor William Hudnut, who, in turn, urged the establishment of an environmental court. On July 11, 1978, the court was formally organized with The Honorable David Jester appointed as the court's first judge. His main focus was to change people's attitudes and behaviors. His sanctions included standardized "probation" requiring the defendant to work with the inspectors to correct the situation, and fines imposed for uncorrected violations. Judge Jester also made certain that the penalty reflected the offense and the offender.

Today 25 communities have environmental courts. Their dockets are reserved exclusively for violations of local health, safety, housing, building, fire, solid waste and litter ordinances. As more environmental cases are prosecuted, greater compliance with local laws is realized, resulting in a safer and cleaner community.

Many of these courts are modeled after the Memphis/ Shelby County (TN) Division 14 Environmental Court. This model court was organized in 1983 by city officials and the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, the city's local KAB affiliate. Similar courts have since been adopted in other Tennessee metropolitan areas including  Nashville, Chattanooga,  Knoxville, and Jackson with help from their local KAB affiliates, court officials, and the state's Clean Tennessee program.

The Honorable Larry Potter, presiding judge of the Memphis/ Shelby County Division 14 Environmental Court recommended that Keep America Beautiful, Inc. identify and bring together environmental court judges to establish a resource group to further the environmental court concept.

In 1991, a survey of KAB community affiliates on illegal dumping illustrated that this violation can be addressed effectively through an environmental court. Three quarters of the affiliates responding believed that illegal dumping of trash, yard waste, and construction or demolition debris was a major problem in their community. Further, fifty-three percent believed that illegal dumping was increasing.

Keep America Beautiful initiative to create a national resource on environmental courts for all communities motivated by the benefits and environmental safeguards that these courts are now providing to American communities.



Creating an environmental court in your community requires research, planning, organizing meetings, and the involvement of municipal agencies and the local court system. Perhaps the single most important factor in motivating the community to create a new environmental court is your ability to demonstrate the need and the benefits that existing courts are returning to citizens and the environment.

Research the Facts...

  • Learn which local agencies enforce codes that are of interest to an environmental court. Areas can include building, fire, safety, public health, housing, solid waste, and environmental codes.

  • Ask each agency for help in determining the number of violations that its inspectors report on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis.

  • Contact the prosecutor's office or clerk of the court at the court of general jurisdiction to learn how many cases are heard annually and how many could be prosecuted by an environmental court.

  • Determine the feasibility of establishing a court specifically designated for environmental matters, staffed by a non-rotating judge or a specialized docket of the general jurisdiction court.

Involve the People...

  • Write the persons at each agency, department, civic organization or court that would be involved in the court's formation. This would also include the mayor, council members, presiding judge, administrative clerk of the court, city or county attorney, county board, and other influential community leaders.

  • Hold an informational meeting to explain the concept and gain consensus on the need for the court. Show KAB's Environmental Court video.

  • Learn the location of the nearest environmental court. Consider sending a representative from the group to observe the court in action. (Contact KAB for a listing of the affiliate communities which have courts.)

Plan Systematically...

  • Collect copies of all applicable ordinances to define the jurisdiction of a new environmental court.

  • Determine if the ordinances require revisions to strengthen enforcement or penalties.

  • Set the court's guidelines

  • Determine the method required for the formal organization of a court and plan the steps for filing all documentation.

  • Identify potential judges who may serve on the court.

  • Determine budgetary considerations that have to be addressed—additional personnel and operating costs.

  • Legislation and ordinances, if required, must be written and passed by the governing body of the jurisdiction served by the court.

  • Guidelines for sanctions, such as fines, community service, or jail stay, must be determined.

  • A system for channeling cases to the environmental court must be specified.

  • Everyone involved with the new court, including court reporter, clerk, and attorneys, must be trained or oriented on the environmental court and its objectives.

Focus on Results...

  • Hold periodic meetings of the organizing group to gather and distribute information about the new court's activities.

  • Encourage the court to conduct training sessions for agency inspectors on how to prepare stronger cases for prosecution.

  • Provide the environmental court judge with information about KAB and the American Bar Association's network of environmental court judges.

Provide Reinforcement...

  • Hold a press conference to announce the court's formation.

  • Conduct a public awareness program to educate citizens about the court. Emphasize its major function is to change attitudes about waste handling and environmental or health concerns, and not necessarily to levy fines or penalties.

  • Monitor the number of cases filed, the time between filing and action, and any attitude and behavior change.

Keep America Beautiful, Inc. has identified over 35 environmental court judges in 25 communities who can assist you and your community in establishing an environmental court. Many of' these judges can serve as mentors or speakers to provide assistance and guidance to your new environmental court judge(s). The American Bar Association has established a specialty committee for environmental court judges. The Honorable Larry Potter and the Honorable Merideth Wright, a Vermont state environmental judge, are co-chairs of the committee. Please contact KAB at: 203-323-8987 to obtain a listing of environmental court judges.

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the following persons in reviewing this document:


  • Susan Gambacurta, Director, Montgomery Clean City Commission, AL

  • The Honorable Penny Harrington, Nashville General Sessions, TN

  • Bob Haskins, Coordinator, Keep Mobile Beautiful, AL

  • Edith Heller, State Coordinator, Clean Tennessee

  • The Honorable William Huntley, Mobile, AL

  • The Honorable Larry Potter, Shelby County Division 14, TN

  • The Honorable Walter Williams, Chattanooga City Judge, TN

Keep America Beautiful, Inc. (KAB), founded in 1953, is a national, not for profit education organization dedicated to improving waste handling practices at the community level and preserving the natural beauty and environment of America. Through its 500 local affiliates in 41 states, KAB is building partnerships with volunteer organizations, government agencies, and the private sector to improve the quality of life in American communities.

Keep America Beautiful, Inc. 1010 Washington Blvd. Stanford, CT 06901-2202 Phone: (203) 323-8987 Fax: (203) 325-9199


Community Courts Meeting Throughout the city every Thursday afternoon.


1st Thursday (Crosstown) 

2nd Thursday Hickory Hill Community Center

Orange Mound Community Center 

3rd Thursday Raleigh Town Center 

4th Thursday Pinehill Community Center

bottom of page