John Cruden’s Ready to Ride a White Horse to Justice

Legal eagle: Cruden has devoted decades to environmental law.
National Journal
Mike Magner
Jan. 27, 2014, 1:52 p.m.

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.”

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