Ted Garrett

Senior Counsel, Covington & Burling

Interview Year: 2017

As a boy growing up in Connecticut, Ted Garrett was interested in science, space exploration, and building rockets and transistors.  But after earning a degree in physics and philosophy at Yale, he turned from science to law.  After a clerkship with U.S Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, he served as a special assistant to William Rehnquist at the Justice Department before Rehnquist became Chief Justice himself.   Garrett joined the Washington, D.C. law firm of Covington and Burling in 1971 where he was assigned the first major environmental case at the firm.  And quite a case it was!

Following the Santa Barbara oil spill, an event that inspired the modern environmental movement, Sun Oil Company, having paid $30 million for a lease to drill off the California coast, was denied a permit to proceed.  Garrett learned through documents obtained in the ensuing litigation that President Nixon had made the decision himself for political reasons, disregarding the judgment of the Interior Department that Sun Oil’s operation would comply with all applicable regulations. Before the argument to recover the money took place in the Court of Claims, Nixon resigned; and Garrett ultimately won his case. 

Garrett places environmental law at the intersection of science, policy, and law and enjoys absorbing science through “osmosis” by working on complex cases.  He takes pride not only in winning many cases for his business clients in court, but also in working with EPA officials to fix problems in the rules in mutually satisfactory ways.  He recounts working with Tom Jorling, another pioneer, to get legislation exempting discharges of pollutants allowed by water permits from being treated as unlawful spills under the oil spill legislation.  Like most of the pioneers, Garrett regrets the political polarization in the environmental arena compared to earlier times and the resulting inability to get things done.  Like many of his clients, he takes the long view about the importance of maintaining company compliance and reputation as differing government administrations come and go..  Meanwhile, he still serves as senior counsel at his firm and is a leader in organizations, including the American College of Environmental Lawyers,  working to educate environmental lawyers and decision makers on today’s complex issues.   Garrett  laments public confusion about the science involved in environmental decision making.  But he remains an optimist about the future, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, that Americans will figure out good solutions to today’s environmental problems after exhausting all other alternatives.