CELDF was formed in 1995 in Pennsylvania by Thomas Linzey, Executive Director, and Stacey Schmader, Administrative Director, to provide free and affordable legal services to community groups. Over the first several years, we assisted hundreds of communities in Pennsylvania facing unwanted corporate development projects such as incinerators and quarries.
We assisted these communities to try to stop the projects by appealing corporate permit applications through the state’s environmental regulatory system. We were very successful appealing permits, finding the holes and omissions that would render them incomplete. As such, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Hearing Board would toss out the permits, and our communities would celebrate their “victory,” believing the system of law had worked.
However, the corporation could and would simply file another permit, this time filling in the holes and omissions we had cited. Once the corporation filed an administratively complete permit application, the state was automatically required to approve it. The communities would ask us to appeal the permit again, but there was nothing left for us to do. We couldn’t help them. The law in Pennsylvania, as in every other state, works the same way. The state legalizes an activity – such as mining, or commercial water withdrawals, or factory farming – and communities are legally prohibited from saying “no” to it.
After experiencing how the regulatory system operated over several years and seeing our communities lose time and time again, we determined that in order to help them, we would need to do our work differently. This led to an evolution of our thinking and our work.
Beginning in 1998, we began to assist communities to draft legally binding laws in which they asserted their right to self-govern. Initially, our work focused on communities facing corporate factory farms and later the application of sewage sludge to farmland. Communities across Pennsylvania adopted our anti-corporate farming and anti-corporate sludging laws.
To accommodate the growing interest in our work, with calls coming in from across the country, we launched the Daniel Pennock Democracy Schools in 2003, which have become a critical tool in our grassroots organizing. Communities facing other corporate threats – such as uranium mining in Virginia and commercial water withdrawals in New England – began to take on this work.
The Legal Defense Fund has now become the principal advisor to activists, community groups, and municipal governments struggling to transition from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over corporations.
We've now taught nearly 200 Democracy Schools across the country and over 100 communities have adopted Legal Defense Fund-drafted ordinances.