What if the judges are getting it wrong? What if they don't understand the law?

People don't usually pose such questions in public. But I'm willing to risk it and to ask out loud: Does the Sacramento-based Third District Court of Appeal issue the wackiest California Environmental Quality Act decisions?

No CEQA lawyer is willing to raise such a question in public because, well, they don't know when they might end up arguing a case in front of three Third District robes. But I will tell you that more than one CEQA lawyer has muttered to me off the record about the Third District.

I bring this up because the state Supreme Court recently overturned a Third District CEQA decision for the third time in slightly less than three years. In Sunset Skyranch Pilots Association v. County of Sacramento the state high court confirmed that a county does not have to study the potential impacts of a project it denies. And the state high court is scheduled later this month to hear oral arguments in yet another CEQA case from the Third District (Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton, No. S159690).

Am I singling out the Third District? No, the state Supreme Court is. During the last 3 1/2 years, the California Supreme Court has issued six CEQA rulings. Half of those rulings were reversals of Third District decisions – even though the Third District is one of the smallest of the six appellate districts in California. The state high court's other CEQA rulings were a reversal of a San Jose-based Sixth District decision on mitigation of impacts (City of Marina v. Board of Trustees of the California State University, (2006) 39 Cal.4th 341), reversal of a San Francisco-based First District decision regarding when an EIR is required (Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano County Airport Land Use Commission, (2007) 41 Cal.4th 372), and affirmation of a Los Angeles-based Second District decision regarding the definition of a "project" (Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood, (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116). Three CEQA cases are pending – one each from the First, Second and Third districts.

It's not that the Third District leans hard toward the pro-environment or pro-development side. In Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth, Inc. v. City of Rancho Cordova, (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412, concerning the adequacy of a water analysis, the court ruled for the Sacramento region's biggest developer. In another case, the court ruled for agricultural interests and environmentalists opposed to the Cal-Fed plan for managing water and the Delta. In the most recent case, the court ruled for an airport owner locked in an ages-old fight with Sacramento County. In the case the State Supreme Court is scheduled to hear later this month, the Third District sided with opponents of a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter. The Third District is not issuing ideologically driven CEQA decisions. Nor is this a matter of one rogue judge, as four different justices wrote the opinions in the four Third District decisions reviewed by the high court.

Still, two of the Third District's reversed decisions were obviously, uh … how to put this gently … outside the mainstream school of thought on CEQA.

• The court rejected the Cal-Fed programmatic EIR in part because Cal-Fed did not analyze a project alternative in which Southern California population growth would cease and, therefore, Southern California cities would not need additional water. Seriously.

• In the most recent case, the court said Sacramento County could not deny a use permit renewal for a private airport that has been a thorn in the county's side since the 1970s unless the county first conducted an environmental review of potential impacts to the airport and its pilots. It took the state Supreme Court only a handful of paragraphs to reverse that faulty logic.

In the news business, we half jokingly say that one event is simply one event, but two occurrences indicate the start of a trend and three occurrences prove the trend is undeniable. In other words, we journalists have a tendency to jump to conclusions. Still, if the state Supreme Court reverses a Third District CEQA decision for the fourth time in a little more than three years, I can only conclude that something is going on. That something may simply be differing legal interpretations by the Third District and the state Supreme Court. Or, more troubling, that something could be a fundamental misunderstanding of the state's cornerstone environmental law by judges in an appellate court district.

– Paul Shigley