California Is a Nuisance

Ah, election year. Don't you just love it, folks? It's a time for debates on the airwaves, flyers in the mail . and bat-crazy lawsuits in the courtroom.

Over in California, State Attorney General Bill Lockyer hopes to trade up for a position as treasurer of the nation's wealthiest state. But before he gets there, he wants to fill California's coffers to the brim -- and get some free press in the process. And so, on Wednesday, he filed a federal lawsuit against the auto industry, alleging that automakers Ford (NYSE: F  ) , GM (NYSE: GM  ) , DaimlerChrysler (NYSE: DCX  ) , Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , Nissan (Nasdaq: NSANY  ) , and Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) are maintaining a "public nuisance" by selling cars that emit greenhouse gases.

My first reaction to the suit went like this: Lovely. This is exactly what the struggling auto industry needs. But the more I look at it, the less I think California has a case here. It's more of a soapbox, really. You see, to win, California needs to prove three things: (1) that the automakers acted intentionally; (2) that they caused harm to the public's health, comfort, or property; and (3) that the harm caused was unreasonable. This case is a loser on all three counts.

First: When the automakers set the levels of their cars' tailpipe emissions, they don't act intentionally; they are compelled to adhere to the permissible levels set by state and federal law.

Second: Even assuming tailpipe emissions contribute to global warming, it's not the automakers who cause the harm -- it's the car drivers who turn the ignition key who cause the harm. (Therefore, Lockyer should actually be suing his own constituents, but then again, that's not smart politics.)

Third: "Reasonableness" is in the mind of the ordinary person. If an ordinary person would rather drive a car than walk to work, then cars -- CO2-spewing metal monsters that they are -- remain a reasonable choice. Considering that 35 million Californians own 33 million cars, I'd say the vote is in on that question.

Finally, I'd like to point out that California is fighting precedent on this question. Although this is the first federal lawsuit directly targeting the auto industry over tailpipe emissions, California's lawsuit resembles another recently decided in New York. In State of Connecticut v. American Electric Power, eight states and the City of New York tried to sue American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP  ) and three other power companies for greenhouse emissions. That case was dismissed last year.

This one should be, too.

California isn't alone in the hare-brained ideas department. Relive the heady days of the oil price run-up as you read about recent goings-on in The People's Republic of Hawaii.

Whether you drive a Hummer or a Prius, the Fool has anewsletter for you. Take a 30-day free trial of any of them on us.

Fool contributor Rich Smith is an attorney by day, and a Fool always. He does not own shares of any company named above, your honor. The Fool'sdisclosure policy is never late for court.


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