Voting rights and Lake Erie disregarded as justices dispute technicalities



Tish O’Dell, Ohio Community Organizer

TOLEDO, OH:  On Friday, the Ohio Supreme Court blocked from the November ballot a Toledo citizen’s initiative.  The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) would have recognized the right of Lake Erie to be healthy and free from pollution that today is killing the Lake and depriving surrounding communities of safe water.

Toledo residents are among eleven million people dependent on Lake Erie for drinking water. Following a 2014 algae bloom that deprived Toledoans of water for three days, community members formed Toledoans for Safe Water. The group requested the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) assist in drafting a bill of rights for Lake Erie as a means to legally protect it. Decades of government regulation have failed to do so. Community members gathered nearly 11,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

Over the last 18 months, in addition to blocking the Toledo initiative, the Ohio Supreme Court justices have ruled to keep a number of rights-based initiatives off the ballot that would have protected communities from shale gas drilling and fracking activities. In addition to those justices dissenting from the majority, the remaining justices are disagreeing how to rationalize blocking the people’s right to vote on their own measures.

In Friday’s ruling, a majority made clear the court had made errors in previous decisions regarding these initiatives. Justice Sharon Kennedy concluded, “The public is not under the illusion that we are infallible. There is little harm in admitting that we made a mistake. But recognizing an error in a prior decision is only the first step; sooner or later, we have to rectify it.”

In all of the justices’ machinations, there is but one mention of Lake Erie in a background paragraph. Markie Miller, an organizer with Toledoans for Safe Water, stated, “We the people put in hundreds of volunteer hours collecting nearly 11,000 signatures because we’re alarmed about Lake Erie’s deterioration. We’re apprehensive about the safety of our drinking water. We’re worried about our survival. Our Ohio Supreme Court justices make no mention of any of that in their decision. It is as if Lake Erie and the people are invisible to the court.”

Crystal Jankowski, another organizer with LEBOR, added, “It was devastating to be without water for 3 days in 2014. This is worse. To know that the Lake and my children are at risk because it is legal for the polluters to pollute us, while our own government makes it illegal for us to propose a law to protect the Lake and our children, is beyond devastating. It is the realization that we not only have a water crisis, but we also have a democracy crisis.”

Terry Lodge is a CELDF-affiliated attorney representing the community group. Lodge stated, “There seems to be a ‘ruling class’ divide in the court, yet they all miss the point that the people have the right to directly legislate by initiative. They ignore their own long-standing precedent, which has always been to allow initiatives on the ballot, regardless of constitutionality. No one can interfere with the city council or the state legislature voting on an illegal or unconstitutional bill. It should be the same for the people of the state. It’s clear that our government is afraid to let the people legislate by initiative.”

CELDF is filing a Motion to Reconsider on behalf of community members today, based on a federal judge ruling in Schmitt vs. Husted, Case No. 2:cv-18-966, on September 19th. In that case, two marijuana initiatives kept off the November ballot by the Portage County Board of Elections were ordered on the ballot. 

Ohio Communities Part of Growing Movement

Toledo and other Ohio communities working with CELDF are part of the growing Rights of Nature movement across the U.S. and around the world. Nearly thirty communities have adopted similar laws in the U.S. as part of community efforts to stop fracking, factory farming, sewage sludging, and other harms. Rights of Nature are increasingly recognized in courts around the world, including in India, Colombia, Ecuador, and New Zealand.

Additional Information

For additional information regarding petitioning communities, contact CELDF at To learn about the Ohio Community Rights Network, visit To learn about the Community Rights Movement, visit

About CELDF — Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit, public interest law firm providing free and affordable legal services to communities facing threats to their local environment, local agriculture, local economy, and quality of life. Its mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature.






Featured image: Lake Erie by Krissy Venosdale, Flickr Creative Commons

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