American environmentalism just got shoved into legal purgatory

American environmentalism just got shoved into legal purgatory

Zoë Schlanger writes:

In a 6–3 ruling today, the Supreme Court essentially threw a stick of dynamite at a giant, 40-year-old legal levee. The decision overruled what is known as the Chevron doctrine, a precedent that governed how American laws were administered. In doing so, it likely unleashed a river of litigation, much of which could erode away the country’s climate and environmental ambitions.

The Chevron doctrine held that when Congress passed ambiguously worded statutes, courts would defer to agencies’ interpretations of how to implement them. This was based on a general recognition of the fact that agencies, staffed with subject-matter experts and the ground-level awareness of what was possible to implement and enforce, were the best suited to do that.

But agency expertise has now gone out the window. In his written opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts mocked the very concept of it: “Perhaps most fundamentally, Chevron’s presumption is misguided because agencies have no special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities. Courts do.” The cases before the Court, which were backed by conservative legal organizations dedicated to weakening the federal government’s role in regulating business, had challenged a rule from the National Marine Fisheries Service that requires the herring industry to pay to have observers on their boats, as part of an effort to prevent overfishing. Lower courts had previously found the rule to be a reasonable interpretation of federal law, but the Supreme Court struck it down. Under the same logic, judges, rather than agency scientists, would have the greater authority to interpret the application of regulatory law. (Relatedly, Justice Neil Gorsuch recently mixed up nitrogen dioxide—a pollutant—with nitrous oxide, the laughing gas, in a Supreme Court opinion.)

Until now, deference to the Chevron doctrine has shaped how every area of how law gets carried out. “Congress has relied on it. Agencies have relied on it. Courts have relied on it, and they’ll dare say, indirectly, the American people have relied on it. This is what we’ve governed under for decades, and the Court is throwing it out entirely,” Lisa Heinzerling, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and an expert in administrative law, told me. [Continue reading…]

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