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Justice Antonin Scalia left an indelible mark on American law. His prodigious intellect, distinctive style and sharp wit will be sorely missed by his family, friends and colleagues.
His passing also creates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the balance of power on the Supreme Court toward greater protection for the environment and greater access to the courts by those most affected by pollution and resource degradation.
A look at Scalia’s legacy reveals why his absence in the coming months could be a pivotal factor on environmental issues.
With few exceptions, such as his opinion in Whitman vs. American Trucking upholding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to set health-based air quality standards without regard to cost and his opinion in City of Chicago v. Environmental Defense Fund rejecting industry arguments that coal ash isn’t a hazardous waste, Justice Scalia’s environmental legacy is decidedly negative.
Interpreting “Standing” and “Harm”
He consistently voted in favor of property rights over protection of endangered species, wetlands and other natural resources. He dissented in the court’s landmark ruling in Massachusetts vs. EPA that the Clean Air Act authorizes the agency to regulate the carbon pollution causing global warming and ocean acidification.
He wrote the majority opinion in a case limiting EPA’s authority to require pre-construction permits for new power plants that only emit greenhouse gases. He wrote the opinion overturning the mercury rule on a technicality—namely, that EPA should have considered cost as a threshold matter before even embarking on the rule-making instead of at the stage when the regulations were actually being applied to specific facilities.
He argued that the Clean Water Act should be narrowly construed to apply only to “relatively permanent bodies of water” rather than, as the lower courts had consistently ruled for more than 30 years, to the entire tributary systems of the nation’s major waterways.
And he is the author of several decisions severely limiting the ability of environmental plaintiffs to challenge unlawful government actions. This includes Lujan vs. Defenders of Wildlife, which the late Justice Blackmun in his dissent characterized as a “slash and burn expedition through the law of environmental standing.”
To establish standing, a plaintiff must show how it is injured by the action being challenged. Scalia applied a more liberal test of injury for industry plaintiffs than for environmental plaintiffs. Standing was presumed whenever industry alleged that a government action might cause undue economic harm but not when an environmental organization alleged that the same action would cause undue environmental harm.
Whither the Clean Power Plan?
Though President Obama has said he intends to nominate a successor “in due course,” Senate Republicans have vowed to stall the confirmation process in the hope that they will win the White House and have the opportunity to nominate someone more to their liking.
Suddenly the Supreme Court has become a huge prize in the 2016 elections and, given the stakes involved, it is likely that the vacancy will remain well into 2017 and the court will be forced to make a number of difficult decisions with an evenly divided bench.
A split court has important implications in a number of key environmental cases.
Top of the list is the president’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), a rule that requires states to develop plans to lower carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Only days before Scalia’s death, the court in a 5-4 party line vote blocked the rule’s implementation pending a decision by the DC Circuit, which has scheduled oral argument for June 2. The stay order provides that it will remain in effect until the Supreme Court either denies review (unlikely) or issues a final decision.
Most observers believe the government, arguing that the Clean Power Plan is legal, drew a favorable panel on the DC Circuit court, which includes Judge Sri Srinivasan, who is rumored to be on Obama’s short list of nominees.
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