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Attorneys of the Year: Byron Starns

Stinson Leonard Street

A leading light in environmental law, Byron Starns is just as passionate about the field now as when he began his practice more than four decades ago.

Starns kicked off his legal career in 1969 at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, where he became the state’s chief deputy attorney general. While there, he made a significant impact on the longest environmental enforcement trial in Minnesota history — the U.S. vs. Reserve Mining case, resulting in two seminal decisions in the field. The iconic litigation helped propel his move into environmental law.

“I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I was lucky,” he said. “When I went to law school, there were no courses in environmental law, but fortunately, my interest in administration and policy provided some direction.”

After joining Leonard, Street and Deinard (now Stinson Leonard Street) in 1979, he moved into handling a wide array of cases with an environmental impact, from antitrust class actions to commercial disputes to product liability claims.

Since 2006, Starns has represented junior and senior mining companies on environmental review and permitting issues, harkening back to that precedent-setting Reserve Mining case. Most recently, he briefed an appeal for argument in 2013 on whether environmental review is required prior to the issuance of a lease of state-owned minerals.

For the future, Starns anticipates that environmental law will become increasingly more complex and sophisticated, since the scale is growing through global companies. The Reserve Mining case was more “black and white,” he notes, with burning rivers and toxic discharge. But now, he’s more likely to be studying detailed scientific reports about emissions at an almost undetectable level. Fortunately, he has just as much enthusiasm for the field now as when he started.

“This area is still so rich with policy, and such interesting issues,” he said. “That’s what sparks my interest, every day.”

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