Yertle the Litigant



Volusia County, Florida, is located on the northeastern coast of the state. Like many other shoreline parts of Florida, its beaches are popular destinations; in this case, Daytona Beach is probably the best known one in the area. Sometime in the 1990s, though, the county enacted legislation allowing people to drive their car onto many beaches in the county (including Daytona) during daylight hours. The county also had allowed, with some restriction, for the installation of artificial lighting at the beach sites.

For many, these additions were appreciated. But for some who frequented Volusia County’s beaches, these changes were unwelcome — and ultimately led to litigation. That’s not so strange — a common caricature of American society is that it is overly litigious — but this case was different.

The lead plaintiffs were turtles.

The idea that turtles can be named litigants in a lawsuit is odd, but likely an intended effect of the United States’ 1973 Endangered Species Act, or ESA. The Act, signed into law by then-President Richard M. Nixon, overhauled and increased the protections afforded to at-risk species, and included a provision which protected the habitats of these species as well. The purpose behind that latter part of the Act is to aid in the recovery or maintenance of the species in question’s population by providing an appropriate place for it to thrive.

For the act’s first decade or so, few people brought lawsuits — in part because the only groups empowered to do so were governmental agencies. That changed in the early 1980s when Congress amended the law. One of those changes was noted in the 1988 case Palila v. Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Palila wasn’t a person, but a species of bird under threat of extinction — and, more on point for this discussion, one which the court cheekily noted “has legal status and wings its way into federal court as a plaintiff in its own right.” Under the revised ESA, the courts had gone to the birds. (Sorry.)

And, for that matter, to other endangered animals as well. A species called the marbled murrelet brought a suit against a California logging company in 1995, for example, and then there’s the aforementioned species of turtles. The turtles were alleging that the artificial light disoriented them during breeding season and that the cars allowed on the beaches were disrupting the ability of newly hatched turtle children to reach the sea.

Of course, turtles can’t talk let alone write often boring legal briefs, so there have to be some humans involved to do that work for them. In this case, the humans were two people by the names of Shirley Reynolds and Rita Alexander who the county accused of opportunism. In one of the court cases involving the turtles, Volusia County asserted that Reynolds and Alexander, in the words of the court, “[were] not interested in saving the turtles” at all, and only brought the lawsuit “because they want to remove vehicles from the beaches for their own personal enjoyment.” Whether that is true is anyone’s guess, but the court didn’t care. Instead, the court noted that as established in the Palila case, the turtles were the one with the grievance. The court here specifically stated that because the turtles were “named Plaintiffs in this action, the case will proceed regardless of the motivations of Shirley Reynolds and Rita Alexander.”

The turtles got their day in court — and won. The county had to revise its policies to comport with the needs of the animals And the county had to do one other thing as well — the court ordered that the county pay the turtles’ attorneys fees.

Bonus Fact: In 2006, a giant tortoise named Adwaita passed away. At the time of his death, he was believed to be over 250 years old, making him one of history’s eldest known creatures.

From the ArchivesSandwich Law: Exploring the legal definition of “sandwich.”

Related: “Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories” by Dr. Seuss.