Justine Thompson '95

July 21, 2009Duke Law News

Justine Thompson says she entered Duke Law with a clear goal in mind.

“I wanted to run a nonprofit environmental law organization,” she says. Thompson achieved her goal 10 years ago when she became executive director of GreenLaw, an Atlanta-based nonprofit — founded in 1992 as the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest — that provides free legal and technical assistance to environmental organizations and community groups throughout Georgia. She serves as lead attorney on most of GreenLaw’s high-profile cases in addition to her administrative duties.

A nature lover since her days growing up in San Francisco among California’s redwoods, Thompson says she developed an interest in environmental issues as a teenager. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1988 she worked in her home state and in Washington, D.C., for such organizations as the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the California Public Interest Research Group.

Thompson found that she enjoyed living in the South during her time at Duke Law and her subsequent clerkship for U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Echols in Nashville. She decided to stay. “I felt that the need was the greatest and I could make the biggest impact here,” she says.

After doing “normal, boring, business litigation” as an associate with Chorey, Taylor and Feil in Atlanta, Thompson practiced environmental litigation as a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

After taking over as executive director at GreenLaw, she built the organization from a staff of one to its current size of six, who together have more than 70 years of legal and nonprofit experience.

Thompson is proud to have created an environmental justice program at GreenLaw that works predominantly in minority and impoverished communities, making it one of the few programs in the country to combine social justice and environmental issues.

The program was successful in preventing Complex Environmental in Atlanta from developing a 1,000-acre landfill in rural Taliaferro County, the state’s least-populous county where more than 25 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

Grateful community members celebrated the victory with a celebration where they presented Thompson with a $2,500 donation to GreenLaw, using funds raised through ice cream socials, church events, and a haunted house, funds that otherwise would have been used to pay for a private attorney. “I raise about a half-million dollars a year, but that was the best check Iever got,” Thompson says. “It was special. I’ll always remember it.”

Thompson also is proud of GreenLaw’s Clean Air Project that launched in November 2000. The project is intended to clean up existing coal-fired power plants, and prevent construction of new ones, and encourage the development of renewable energy in the state.

“There’s a lot of focus on protecting waterways in Georgia because it’s tangible, and you can see it. You go out on your river and you want that river to be clean, but every single day we’re breathing air,” Thompson says. “For some reason I have seen a disconnect between people’s concern about pollution and the actual air that they breathe even though it’s the most pervasive form of pollution in terms of its impact on people’s daily lives.”

Working with the Clean Air Act has brought Thompson’s career full circle: Early in her career, when she was an intern with the Sierra Club, she lobbied to the have the legislation reauthorized; with GreenLaw she is working to make sure it is implemented properly in Georgia.

Thompson relishes the growth she’s seen at GreenLaw and in the number of public interest lawyers in her area. “When I first decided that I wanted to be a public interest environmental attorney there were very few positions, and the legal environmental community that worked on pro-environmental issues was really just a fledgling community, a handful of people here and there,” says Thompson, who now ranks as the senior female public interest environmental attorney in Georgia. “Now we have a Public Interest Environmental Law Coalition here that I helped start with attorneys that meet every month. There’s a real network of lawyers that are all working in conjunction together and a network of organizations that we work with and represent.”

Thompson credits former Duke Law Professor Laura Underkuffler with encouraging her to continue traveling down a road less traveled by many law school graduates and pursue a public interest career. She now provides similar counsel to students who hold ambitions like hers.