Supreme Court Decisions Provide Opportunities for Wins in Climate and Environment Cases

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plaintiffs leave the United States Supreme Court, where the justices heard arguments on a DACA case Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Washington. (Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu)

Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu, The Washington Post

This week, the Supreme Court decided important cases favoring the rights of LGBTQ individuals and the policy of allowing the “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age to remain in the U.S. undocumented.  Both cases provide important legal principles that could be significant in a host of litigation over climate change and the rollbacks of environmental protections.  These decisions require agencies to follow the letter of the law when developing programs and rules, even if those seem outside of what Congress intended, and they require agencies to follow proper procedures and adequately explain and justify their actions when rescinding prior rules, even when they have a right to rescind them.

Why This Matters:  The Trump administration has been ruthless and careless in its quest to blunt the impacts of the nation’s environmental laws and rollback related policies and regulations.  But they can be held to account even by conservative courts, and the language of these Supreme Court decisions could be used against those who try to justify the administration’s decisions.  The rule of law still matters.  Environmental groups challenging poorly reasoned and explained agency rollbacks, and those that defy the words of the statutes themselves, now have some powerful precedent on their side.  

The Plain Language of the Statute

As Prof. Ann Carlson of the UCLA Law School writes on Legal Planet (no relation), the “holding that employers can’t fire LGBTQ workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, may seem far afield from the regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act (CAA). But its reasoning could have huge implications for climate change action. ”  She reasons that because a prior Supreme Court decision in a case called Massachusetts v. EPA  held that air pollutants — very expansively defined in the CAA — include greenhouse gases, then a number of sections of the very complex law seem to either require or authorize EPA to regulate greenhouse gas sources — like power plants and cars.  This is true, even though the statute is silent on climate change.  And the Court’s decision this week in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, as Carlson put it “gave proponents of using the Clean Air Act for expansive regulation of greenhouse gases a potent new precedent.”

Agencies Must Provide An Adequate Reason 

In yesterday’s decision on the legality of the Trump Administration’s rescission of the DACA program, the Court based its decision on a legal principle that requires agencies to provide adequate reasons for rescinding or rolling back rules and to explain the reasons for doing so.  The Court yesterday re-affirmed two important principles that guide agency actions.  First that an agency decision cannot be justified based on post-hoc rationalizations — the agency has to explain its decisions and can’t keep changing the rationale after the fact searching for better reasons.  And second, that in rescinding an earlier action, an agency cannot rescind that regulation or action unless its rationale explains the full decision.  The Court said that an agency could not treat “a rationale that applied to only part of a policy as sufficient to rescind the entire policy.” These principles will apply in environmental cases too.  As Georgetown University Law School professor William Buzbee (a Friend of the Planet) explained, “Trump reversals have often provided little or no analysis of reliance interests flowing from the earlier action and skimpy analysis of effects of the new actions,” he said. “Such flawed approaches are especially evident in climate deregulatory actions and the ‘waters of the United States’ rollback, but in many other actions as well.”

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