Supreme Court restricts EPA's authority to mandate carbon emissions The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to mandate carbon emissions from existing power plants.


Supreme Court restricts the EPA's authority to mandate carbon emissions reductions

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On the last day of this term, the Supreme Court today delivered major decisions on climate change and immigration and a signal that the court could reshape elections in the future. We'll have coverage on all this throughout the program, starting with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Having ruled on abortion, prayer and guns in the last week, the court today turned to the regulatory power of federal agencies. By a 6-3 vote, the court dealt a major blow to the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change. The decision by the conservative supermajority sets the stage for further limitations on the regulatory power of other agencies as well. Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that anytime an agency does something big and new, in this case addressing climate change, the regulation is presumptively invalid unless Congress has specifically authorized it.

The issue before the court was how the EPA can regulate coal-fired power plants, which in this country are the single largest source of carbon emissions that cause climate change. The Obama administration set state-by-state carbon limits and encouraged states to rely less on coal and more on alternative energy sources. Even though the program was blocked by the courts, it met its targets 11 years ahead of schedule, for the simple reason that it turned out coal was too expensive compared to other power-generating sources. But today, the Supreme Court turned thumbs-down on any such systemic approach. Bringing to life what it's called the major questions doctrine, the court said that neither the EPA nor any other agency may adopt rules that are transformational to the economy unless Congress has specifically authorized such a rule to address a specific problem like climate change.

RICHARD LAZARUS: That's a big deal 'cause they're not going to get it from Congress because Congress is effectually dysfunctional.

TOTENBERG: Harvard Law professor Richard Lazarus is an expert on environmental law.

LAZARUS: And in many ways, this case also couldn't have happened at a worse time. I mean, every day you see the consequences of climate change are increasingly dire, and we're running out of time to address it.

TOTENBERG: Case Western Reserve professor Jonathan Adler, who's written extensively about regulatory law, notes that today's decision extends far beyond the EPA.

JOHNATHAN ADLER: The court is definitely sending a signal to regulatory agencies more broadly that they only have the power that Congress delegated to them and that agencies need to think twice before they try to pour new wine out of old bottles.

TOTENBERG: In other words, an agency can't simply retrofit an old statute to create new tools or new mechanisms to address a problem that's just generally within the agency's jurisdiction. In terms of climate change, observes Professor Lazarus, that's likely to have an immediate effect.

LAZARUS: Remember; when Joe Biden was elected, he said, we're going to use a whole-of-government approach to climate, not just EPA regulation. Well, that whole-of-government approach may now find itself under a cloud of this court's opinion.

TOTENBERG: Justice Elena Kagan, in a furious dissent, said essentially that the court is making up new rules that contradict nearly a century of regulatory law. The text of the Clean Air Act, she said, clearly anticipates that the EPA will have to deal with new problems and uses broad language to allow that. The court majority, she said, does not have a clue about how to address climate change, yet it appoints itself, instead of Congress or an expert agency, the decision-maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening, she concluded.

After issuing its final decisions today, the court scheduled another hot-button issue for next term, the conduct of federal elections. In a brief order, the court said it will hear a case from North Carolina next term testing the so-called independent state legislature doctrine. Basically, it's a theory that Republican state legislatures have come up with that could reshape how federal elections are conducted.

The doctrine argues that state legislatures have independent power, not subject to review by the state courts. It would even allow the legislatures to set election rules that are at odds with their own state constitutions. If the court agrees, and some conservative justices have already indicated they do, state legislatures would, for instance, have unfettered power to draw gerrymandered congressional maps without court review of any kind. Professor Rick Hasen is an expert on election law.

RICK HASEN: Taken to its extreme, the independent state legislature doctrine could be an earthquake in American election law and fundamentally alter the balance of power within states and provide a pathway to subvert election results.

TOTENBERG: So if you think the last few weeks have been a bumpy ride, you can expect more next term. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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