Bush's War on the West?

Today's Washington Post reports:

Using language that suggests they are fed up with the Bush administration, federal judges across the West have issued a flurry of rulings in recent weeks, chastising the government for repeated and sometimes willful failure to enforce laws protecting fish, forests, wildlife and clean air.

In decisions in Oregon, California, Montana and Wyoming, judges have criticized the judgment, expertise and, in some cases, integrity of the federal agencies that manage natural resources on public lands.

Whereas the headlne suggests the judges are upset with Bush Administration policy, I would think it is more accurate to say that the judges are frustrated with the Administration's execution of policy, in particular its failure to comply with various deadlines and analytical requirements. In this regard, the Bush Administration is hardly alone — the Clinton Administration also played fast and loose with some environmental law requirements, particularly in the second term — but that does not excuse the current administration's performance.

UPDATE: A commenter who works in the environmental field made some points below that I thought were worth highlighting:

As an environmental worker myself (my job is intimately related to many of the laws, as well as science, behind the cases you are citing), I know that essentially EVERY decision within the environmental realm is a political decision. Environmental science is very 'soft'-it is not determinate like physics (building a bridge with a certain strength is reasonably easy to do). It is quite indeterminate, like political science of sociology (writing a law that will result in a certain economic results is extremely difficult to do-as is writing a law with a certain impact to salmon populations, or running a dam to yield a certain depth of water downstream, etc etc).

Thus, practically every decision in environmental situations-whether policy, legal, or technical, is really a policy decision-there is no clear cut interpretation of a law or scientific study for a judge to see and apply.

So when judges say they don't like Bush's response to X (this law, that study, those salmon population data, etc) they really are saying they don't like his interpretation of the law/science/policy, and would prefer their own interpretations.

I believe there is some truth in this, particularly with regard to the "softness" of much environmental science and the policy judgments that are inherent in implementing environmental mandates.

That said, I don't think judicial invalidations of environmental policy decisions are always, or even often, based upon the judges' political preferences (though there is an academic literature debating this point). Judges are just not that prone to explicitly second-guess policy judgments. Instead, judges are very likely to identify cases in which a given agency has failed to fulfill its procedural or analytical requirements. These sorts of errors — failing to examine X or respond to concern Y — are relatively easy for generalist judges to identify, so these sorts of mistakes are most likely to lead to the invalidation of agency action. It may well be that judges scrutinize disfavored policies more closely, but I still think that most invalidations are based upon agency failures to fulfill their legal obligations.

SECOND UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comment by former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson as well.