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Climate

How the Supreme Court Just Changed Climate Law, According to 9 Lawyers

“The only common thread is the seeming desire of the court to aggrandize the power of the courts.”

A tree getting smashed by a gavel.
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The word “consequential” barely touches the importance of the Supreme Court’s decisions this term, as two cases — Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Corner Post, Inc. v. Board of Governors — took a wrecking ball to the stability of the administrative state. Courts will no longer give deference to regulators to interpret statute and will permit new challenges against existing rules. Essentially, depending on whom you ask, anything goes.

So naturally, we had to ask. While the legal universe is still digesting these rulings, climate and environmental law experts had plenty of opinions about them, as lawyers tend to do. Here’s what we heard:

Michael Gerrard, professor and faculty director at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School

The Supreme Court has been on a campaign to weaken environmental regulation. In 2016, it halted implementation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan without explanation. In 2022, it issued the devastating opinion in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, finding that the EPA couldn’t go very far in using the Clean Air Act to fight climate change because the statute isn’t specific enough. In 2023, the court in Sackett v. EPA greatly reduced the coverage of the Clean Water Act.

That campaign intensified this year. On June 27, 2024, in Ohio v. EPA, it struck down a life-saving Clean Air Act rule based on exceedingly narrow technical grounds that Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in her dissent, found were completely off base. The same day, in SEC v. Jarkesy, the Court said that agencies could not use long-established administrative processes to impose certain kinds of penalties. On June 28, the court reversed the Chevron doctrine in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo. On July 1, in Corner Post, Inc. v. Board of Governors, it said that corporate defendants can challenge federal regulations long past the usual statute of limitations. And this campaign may continue: on June 24 the Supreme Court agreed to hear Seven County Infrastructure Coalition v. Eagle County, which may shrink the coverage of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The next election will determine whether the 6-3 conservative majority may be enlarged and rejuvenated to last another generation, or — depending on the fates — may shrink or be reversed.

Scott Lemieux, professor of political science at the University of Washington

For good reason, the last day of the Supreme Court’s term will be known for its decision giving presidents incredibly broad immunity from criminal prosecution. But another decision that will play a major role in restricting the ability of the executive branch to protect the environment should not be neglected. Corner Post effectively eliminated what had been a six-year statute of limitations for challenging federal regulations. The impact of Corner Post will amplify the effect of last week’s opinion overturning the Chevron decision, which had held that the judiciary should defer to reasonable legal interpretations made by the executive branch.

The Court announcing that it will take a much more aggressive role in replacing the judgment of regulatory experts in the executive branch with their own judgments will have particularly dire consequences for environmental regulations. What they see as “excessive” environmental regulation is one of the central reasons why conservative legal activists wanted the Chevron doctrine overruled. It’s not a coincidence that last week, the court also prevented a federal regulation of air pollutants from going into effect, one of a long series of Roberts court rulings undermining environmental regulation. And in a darkly comic illustration of what a bad idea it is to replace the judgment of EPA experts with that of arrogant, power-hungry judges, in his opinion for the court, Justice Gorsuch confused “nitrous oxide” (commonly known as “laughing gas”) and “nitrogen oxides” (the pollutant the EPA sought to regulate.)

People who want to stop environmental regulation will not be laughing when considering the effects of this Supreme Court term. Conservative lawyers will aggressively forum-shop for judges hostile to environmental regulations to bring challenges even to long-settled rules, and the authority of the EPA will be under constant threat as the planet continues to warm.

Stan Meiburg, executive director of the Sabin Family Center for Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University, formerly of the Environmental Protection Agency

The combined effect of the Corner Post and Loper decisions may not be immediate, but they will be profound. They will make it harder for agencies to do their work, and easier for challengers (especially very well-funded challengers) to attack and delay actions.

The two opinions are hard to reconcile. In Loper, the opinion cites Chevron as "fostering unwarranted instability" in the law, but in Corner Post, the court has added extreme instability by leaving open-ended the question of when a regulation is ever settled. The only common thread is the seeming desire of the court to aggrandize the power of the courts.

Specific to climate, notwithstanding the statement in the opinion that Loper does not reopen prior holdings that used the Chevron framework, it is hard to imagine that such challenges will not be forthcoming. In particular, opponents of the finding in Massachusetts v. EPA may see Loper and Corner Post as an opportunity to reopen that 2007 case, especially as the court seems quite ready and willing to overturn past precedents.

Finally, we have examples of how pre- Chevron litigation worked under the Clean Air Act — and these examples should give as much pause to conservatives as to progressives. Courts are not likely to function well as regulatory agencies. The original Chevron decision was favored by conservatives at the time; post-Chevron, conservatives may regret that they got what they asked for.

Kym Meyer, litigation director at the Southern Environmental Law Center

The Supreme Court’s rulings this session jeopardize critical environmental protections and climate progress and are likely to wreak chaos across the regulatory landscape. In Corner Post the Supreme Court upended the statute of limitations for challenging many government regulations, opening the door to hundreds of new corporate challenges to long-established protections we all take for granted. And in Loper Bright, the court displaced the long-standing Chevron doctrine by shifting power to judges and sidelining the expertise of agency staff who live and breathe the science and safety concerns that federal agencies specialize in.

In combination, the cases tip the balance of power away from everyday Americans that depend on commonsense protections to industry groups that believe they will financially benefit without any limitations in place. We’re ready to fight back to make sure this conservative supermajority doesn't leave us with a patchwork of inconsistent rulings and an annihilation of the regulatory structure and critical protections that keep us safe and healthy.

Sanjay Narayan, managing attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program

The Supreme Court's decisions, in combination, make it clear that the Court intends to insert itself as, in Justice Kagan's words, the country's “administrative czar.” Those decisions give courts control over a wide array of scientific, technical, and policy choices necessary to effectively implement our laws protecting clean air, clean water, and affordable and reliable energy (and much more). That is likely to prove corrosive to climate policy; judges lack the accountability, expertise, and experience of agencies like the EPA or the Department of Energy.

But the primary drivers of decarbonization — economics and public investments to accelerate the clean energy transition, like the Inflation Reduction Act — remain relatively insulated from judicial interference. So while the court's decisions make the likely pathway to decarbonization less steady, science-driven, and predictable, it should not derail our ongoing progress towards achieving our climate goals over the long term.

Josiah Neeley, resident fellow and director of Texas-related programs at the R Street Institute

Undoubtedly, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Corner Post and Loper Bright will make it easier for plaintiffs to prevail in legal challenges to environmental regulations. But we should be careful to keep things in perspective. The end of Chevron deference means that agency interpretations of statutes will get more judicial scrutiny than they did before, but even under Chevron deference it was limited by such things as the major questions doctrine. Agency interpretations are still likely to prevail in many cases. Similarly, while the changes to when the statute of limitations begins to run will allow additional challenges to be brought, a regulation that has already survived earlier legal challenges is likely to be upheld again if challenged by a new plaintiff later on. Agencies like EPA or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission do not need to be insulated from judicial review in order to be able to function. If they do, that suggests a deeper problem with the administrative state.

Adam Orford, assistant professor at University of Georgia School of Law

In its regulatory jurisprudence this term, the Supreme Court has fundamentally changed the playing field for environmental regulation, making it much more difficult for agencies to use the flexibility that Congress has attempted to provide to protect the environment. This is likely to be felt especially where agencies are trying to tackle new problems using older statutes. The ball is now in Congress's court to protect the American people by regularly improving the nation's environmental laws, ensuring that federal regulatory programs that prevent pollution and preserve our country's natural resources for future generations are not lost forever over legal technicalities.

Sam Sankar, senior vice president for programs at Earthjustice

Taken together, Corner Post and Loper Bright fire the starting gun for an onslaught of lawsuits challenging long-settled regulatory programs. (They also sound the dinner bell for amoral corporate law firms.)

Judicial conservatives have long proclaimed the need for judicial minimalism and caution. Judges, they say, are not elected, and have no business making policy from the bench. They should decide individual cases and focus on the facts in front of them to avoid ripple effects that they can’t foresee and can’t easily fix.

This conservative supermajority is instead heedlessly pursuing a political agenda. By rewriting settled precedents to pursue a holy war against federal regulations, the court is truly legislating from the bench. And in justifying all this by citing idiosyncratic views of the separation of powers, the court is practically holding a new constitutional convention behind closed doors.

Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

The Supreme Court has made it clear that legal precedents and the plain language of statutes will not slow their crusade to destroy the modern regulatory state at the behest of their wealthy benefactors. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson got it right in her dissent in Corner Post: “At the end of a momentous Term, this much is clear: The tsunami of lawsuits against agencies that the Court's holdings in this case and Loper Bright have authorized has the potential to devastate the functioning of the Federal Government.”

This tsunami of lawsuits will result in less consistent statutory interpretations based on individual courts' views on government regulation generally and on the matter at hand. The court's power grab lays bare the importance of civil society and elected officials finding ways to rebalance the relationships between the three branches of government and supporting the ability of federal agencies to implement federal laws effectively.

Green
Jael Holzman profile image

Jael Holzman

Jael is a senior reporter at Heatmap. Previously, she was an energy and climate policy reporter for Axios and covered energy transition resources for E&E News. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Jillian Goodman profile image

Jillian Goodman

Jillian is Heatmap's deputy editor. Before that, she was opinion editor at The Information and deputy editor at Bloomberg Green.

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