A federal appeals court judge who died last week played a major role in several major environmental cases.
Judge M. Blane Michael of the Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals died Friday at the age of 68.
President Clinton nominated him to the bench in 1993. On a court that became increasingly conservative during the George W. Bush administration, he was seen as one of its more liberal voices.
Environmental attorneys fondly recall his role on two issues in particular: mountaintop removal mining and the listing of the red wolf as an endangered species.
A West Virginian, Michael was clearly concerned about the impact of mountaintop-removal coal mining on his home state. In mountaintop-removal projects, miners blast off the peaks of mountains and let debris fill adjacent valleys.
But he was in the minority when the 4th Circuit ruled on the issue.
In 2009, he wrote a spirited dissent when a three-judge panel on which he was sitting ruled 2-1 to reverse a U.S. district judge's ruling in favor of a challenge to the approval of four Clean Water Act permits in West Virginia in relation to a mining operation.
Michael concluded his 17-page dissent by noting that the majority's decision "will have far-reaching consequences for the environment of Appalachia."
No one disputed that "the impact of filling valleys and headwater streams is irreversible or that headwater streams provide crucial ecosystem functions," he noted.
The ruling therefore "risks significant harm to the affected watersheds and water resources," Michael wrote.
Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, who worked on the case, described the dissent as "an eloquent statement of the law."
Michael "came down in favor of enforcing the law in protecting his native state from the ravages of mountaintop removal," he added.
Steve Roady, an attorney at Earthjustice who also worked on the case, also praised Michael.
"We are all deeply saddened to learn that Judge Michael has left us," Roady said. "He was a wonderful judge: exceedingly bright and thoughtful, and manifestly fair."
In an earlier case, Michael was also in the minority in voting for the full 4th Circuit to reconsider a panel ruling that overturned another lower court ruling on mountaintop removal operations.
In the wolf case, a three-judge panel voted 2-1 in a 2000 ruling that a Fish and Wildlife Service rule that limited the killing of wolves on private land was not unconstitutional.
Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote the opinion, but Michael cast the deciding vote.
Prior to serving as a judge, Michael was a lawyer in private practice and also served as an aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) when the latter was governor of West Virginia.
"I will be forever fortunate to call him my dearest friend and confidant -- the kind you just trust to his very core and whose deep, easy companionship abides with you for a lifetime," Rockefeller said in a statement.