Still mired in the massive case against BP for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Justice Department is turning to an old hand to help revitalize environmental enforcement for the Obama administration.
Just before Christmas, President Obama nominated John Cruden as assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources. Cruden was a top career attorney in the DOJ division for more than 20 years before stepping down in 2011 to become president of the Environmental Law Institute, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.
“John Cruden’s lifetime commitment to public service, his decades devoted to environmental law, and his outstanding record at the Justice Department make him an unparalleled choice to lead the Environment and Natural Resources Division,” said ELI Chairman Edward Strohbehn Jr. after the appointment was announced Dec. 23. “We at ELI can attest to the great qualities he will bring to the work — his knowledge and judgment to make good decisions and his spirit and energy to bring others together and get the job done.”
Jason Hutt, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani focused on environmental litigation, said Cruden “commanded great respect” during his two decades at Justice. “I think he has a very fair-minded and disciplinary approach to these issues,” Hutt said. “I don’t view him as a political appointment at all.”
David Doniger, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, had a similar view. “He is very well qualified for this,” Doniger said. “They have a good team and they do good work…. He will fit in very well.”
Cruden was unable to do an interview with his confirmation pending in the Senate, but when he left the Justice Department in 2011 he told National Journal he was not looking to leave, but was attracted by ELI’s “vision statement,” which calls for “a healthy environment, prosperous economies, and vibrant communities founded on the rule of law.”
Now Cruden, if confirmed, will face the challenge of reinvigorating a division at Justice with more than 500 full-time employees, many of them attorneys who have been wrapped up in the Gulf spill litigation for more than three years. The previous assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, Ignacia Moreno, resigned last June to return to private life. Moreno had been with the division during the Clinton administration and worked for two Washington law firms and as a corporate environmental counsel for General Electric before Obama tapped her for the Justice position in 2009.
Cruden was a government attorney for 35 years, including 14 with the military, before joining ELI. After graduating from West Point, he was an Army Ranger in Germany and Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, then went to Santa Clara Law School and the Woodrow Wilson School at the University of Virginia before becoming an Army litigator in 1976. He moved to the Justice Department in 1991 as chief of environmental enforcement, then rose to deputy assistant attorney general in the environment division in 1995.
During his more than 20 years at Justice, Cruden played a leading role in almost every major environmental case, including the government’s prosecution for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska; toxic-waste dumping at Love Canal, N.Y.; dioxin contamination in Times Beach, Mo.; and finally the BP oil spill.
The Justice Department’s civil case against BP and eight other parties involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster was filed in December 2010, about six months before Cruden left the environmental division. The trial began last February and is still underway in federal court in New Orleans.
“The discovery requirements involved in the Deepwater litigation are unprecedented,” says the fiscal 2014 budget summary for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The outcome of the department’s civil Deepwater litigation is likely to be historic in terms of the scale and scope of monetary penalties and redress imposed.”