Attorney to Withdraw Colorado River Lawsuit Under Threat of Sanctions

Messages were beamed on the side of a federal building using a projector on Friday.
Messages were beamed on the side of a federal building using a projector on Friday. Chris Walker
Update, Monday December 4, 4:30 pm: The United States District Court has withdrawn the case with prejudice. A statement from the Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has been added to the bottom of this piece.


If you happened to be gazing at the U.S. Education Department building, at the corner of 20th and Champa streets, between 5 and 5:45 p.m. on Friday, December 1, you would have noticed something unusual.

Projected in large letters onto the building were a sequence of phrases:

“Colorado River. Rights of Nature”

“Water is a Right”


Across the street, at the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse, a group of two dozen environmental protesters looked on with pride at their mischief…until federal police shut down the projector.

click to enlarge CHRIS WALKER
Chris Walker
The demonstration, organized in part by Deep Green Resistance, supported a unique suit filed on behalf of the Colorado River — in which the Colorado River was listed as the plaintiff.

As we’ve reported, Colorado River v. State of Colorado represented a first-of-its-kind case in federal court, in which a number of human representatives — and Denver-based lawyer Jason Flores-Williams — were attempting to establish “personhood” for the Colorado River and give it, and other natural resources, legal standing to sue corporations, states and individuals for violating rights to “exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored and naturally evolve.”

But in a surprise move, Flores-Williams says that he must withdraw the case this week. 

On Saturday, one day after the protest, the lawyer told Westword that he could not go forward with the litigation because of serious threats of sanctions from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which warned that it would level him and his law office with financial penalties — and even the possibility of Flores-Williams's disbarment — on the grounds that his “rights of nature” case is unlawful and frivolous.

The attorney — who was profiled in a Westword cover story and is also suing Denver over its homeless sweeps — issued this statement about deciding to withdraw the case:

"I'm not Donald Trump. I don't take losses and try to spin them into victories. I look at facts straightforwardly and deal with them like a man. A great victory here would have been some rights conferred on the Colorado River, but we're not there yet. So, that's a loss. That said, we have introduced this important legal doctrine into the American consciousness, which is a victory. The best thing we can do now for the River and the birth of this doctrine is withdraw the complaint, avoid a lengthy sanctions battle, and vigorously continue the fight for justice going forward."

On Monday, after the United States District Court withdrew the case, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman issued this statement:

“The United States District Court has dismissed with prejudice the Colorado River Ecosystem's Amended Complaint against Colorado. The Colorado River Ecosystem asked for the dismissal after my office filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. Under the terms of dismissal, the case cannot be brought again in federal court. I do not doubt the personal convictions of those groups and individuals who claimed to speak on behalf of the ecosystem. However, the case itself unacceptably impugned the State’s sovereign authority to administer natural resources for public use, and was well beyond the jurisdiction of the judicial branch of government. After my office presented counsel with these and other realities, he readied and wisely chose to withdraw the case. Colorado has always been a national leader in preserving our environment, and we will continue to protect and administer its natural resources as guaranteed by the Constitution.”

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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker