Cornell Law Review Volume 95 Issue 2

Environmental Law as a Legal Field: An Inquiry in Legal Taxonomy

This Article examines the classification of the law into legal fields, first by a general survey of legal taxonomy and then by specific examination of environmental law.  We classify the law into fields to find and create patterns, which render the law coherent and understandable.  A legal field is a group of situations unified by a pattern or set of patterns that is both common and distinctive to the field.  We can conceptualize a legal field as the interaction of four underlying constitutive dimensions of the field: (1) a factual context that gives rise to (2) certain policy trade-offs, which are in turn resolved by (3) the application of values and interests to produce (4) legal doctrine.  An organizational framework for a field identifies the field’s common and distinctive patterns, which may arise in any of these underlying constitutive dimensions.

The second part of the Article applies this general analytical approach to the field of environmental law, proposing a framework for understanding environmental law as a field of legal study and analysis.  Two core factual characteristics of environmental problems are, in combination, both common and distinct to environmental law: physical public resources and pervasive interrelatedness.  Numerous and varied use demands are placed on environmental resources, thereby creating conflicts.  These use conflicts define the policy trade-offs that frame environmental lawmaking, forming the basis for a use-conflict framework for conceptualizing environmental lawmaking.  A use-conflict framework for environmental lawmaking carries significant analytical advantages over other models for conceptualizing environmental law as a legal field.


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