- Lead staff attorney for Earthjustice
Raised in rural Connecticut, Michael Sherwood graduated from Yale University in 1964 and earned a JD degree from Stanford Law School three years later. During his student days at Stanford, he did some legal services work in East Palo Alto, California. After graduating in 1967, Sherwood moved to Hawaii to work as a trial lawyer specializing in personal injury, criminal defense, and environmental issues; he also did some work for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. In 1969 Sherwood was hired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Hawaii in Honolulu. After that, he collaborated with a former public defender to set up a public interest law firm. This led Sherwood into the field of environmental work, where he prosecuted trespassers in a wildlife refuge. One day he was approached by the director of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, who persuaded him to relocate to California.
Notwithstanding the fact that he was again living on the West Coast, Sherwood litigated approximately half of his cases over the ensuing decade in Hawaii. The most significant of these cases involved the palila, a bird whose habitat was restricted entirely to a single mountain area on the largest Hawaiian island. In 1978 Sherwood named that bird as the chief plaintiff in a successful lawsuit where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against any effort to develop any part of that habitat. In subsequent court actions, Sherwood succeeded in adding 186 additional species to the protected list in Hawaii, plus another 150 in California, and some 200 more elsewhere in the country.
In 1974 Sherwood began his tenure as a lead staff attorney for Earthjustice. He eventually became the organization’s most experienced attorney, commanding some $350 per hour for the cases which he tried. “You won’t see diplomas hanging on the walls of my office,” he once stated proudly. “Instead, I have pictures of the various critters I’ve represented, and, maybe, helped to save.”
In December 2001 a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit in which timber interests and backcountry vehicle users tried to challenge a 2000 executive order by which former President Bill Clinton had created the 327,769-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument in California (rendering the area off-limits to mining, logging, and off-road vehicles). “The ruling is a clear victory for the environment and sends a strong message to those lodging such spurious challenges to well-established law,” said Sherwood.
Sherwood was highly displeased when a federal judge in July 2002 approved a settlement in a case in which the Home Builders Association of Northern California had sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on grounds that the latter had failed to show that a ban on all development in a particular 4-million-acre area was essential for the survival of the red-legged frog species that lived there. Reacting with dismay to the settlement, which required the wildlife agency to redraw the boundaries of the protected territory by 2005, Sherwood filed a motion to negate the settlement and said: “I was shocked. We had no opportunity to object. The implications are bad for the frog if the ruling stays in place. An important layer of protection is gone.”
When the FWS declared in 2008 that water operations in California must be altered in order to protect the state’s Bay-Delta ecosystem from collapse, Sherwood said: “We are delighted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally recognized that we have reached the limits of how much water can be pumped out of the Delta without causing the complete collapse of the Delta ecosystem and all the creatures that depend upon a healthy Delta for their survival — including people. The FWS found that excessive pumping of water out of the Delta over the last several years is driving the Delta smelt — an indicator of the overall health of the Delta — to extinction. Excessive pumping and other operations of the State and Federal Water Projects has also driven California salmon and steelhead to the brink of extinction….”
Further Reading: Class Divide: Yale ’64 and the Conflicted Legacy of the Sixties (by Howard Gillette, Jr., 2015, p. 123); “Judge Rejects Suit Challenging Establishment of Sequoia Monument in California” (Tahoe Daily Tribune, 12-19-2001); “Red-Legged Frog Loses Habitat Protection” (Half Moon Bay Review, 7-10-2002); “New Biological Opinion Will Protect San Francisco Bay-Delta” (EarthJustice.org, 12-15-2008).