On June 30, 2022, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency striking down the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. In so doing the conservative bloc of the Court fired an opening shot at the EPA in particular and all regulatory agencies in general. The case arose when West Virginia challenged the Clean Power Plan, a set of regulations governing carbon emissions for previously existing hydrocarbon-fired electric generating plants. The EPA argued and the dissenting liberal justices on the Court agreed that Congress delegated authority to regulate emissions from gas and coal powered electric plants under provisions of the Clean Air Act.
The broad language of the Clean Air Act inarguably allows the EPA to regulate industrial air emissions. However, the conservative Justices, led by Chief Justice Roberts, crafted a entirely new legal doctrine, the “Major Questions Doctrine” in order to avoid the plain language of the Clean Air Act. Chief Justice Roberts declared that the Major Questions Doctrine (MQD) arose due to the allegedly recurring problem of “agencies asserting highly consequential power beyond what Congress could reasonably be understood to have granted.”
Prior to West Virginia v. EPA, Courts were typically highly deferential to agency interpretation of statutes delegating them authority. Because this type of delegation of powers to agencies leads to stronger oversight of industry, the conservative justices on the court seemingly created a new legal doctrine whereby courts are now to approach new agency actions restricting industry with a much a greater degree of skepticism.
In the Conservative view, if Congress wants to regulate industry, it must do so with a “clear congressional authorization” as Justice Roberts puts it. The dissenting Liberal Justices led by Justice Kagan notes that with the passing of the Clean Air Act, Congress intended to issue the EPA broad discretion in crafting a plan to reduce emissions. Justice Kagan argues correctly that the Major Questions Doctrine has no precedential basis. Stripping back the façade of Justice Roberts’ Majority Opinion, Justice Kagan lays bare the political nature of this decision:
“The current Court is textualist only when being so suits it. When that method would frustrate broader goals, special canons like the ‘major questions doctrine’ magically appear as get-out-of-text-free cards.”
The decision is an enormous step backwards to those working tirelessly to protect the public health and environment. With this opinion, Justice Roberts declared war on regulators of ALL industries. Federal oversight of businesses will be relaxed just as the Chamber of Commerce has always wanted. Regulators who investigate oil spills, workplace safety, chemical emissions, the safety of food products and drugs, as well as countless other regulators will have the roles delegated to them by Congress shrunk every time there is an ambiguity in the delegating language of a statute regardless of its breadth. This is the point of the decision: anti-regulation.
Kagan’s dissent counters Roberts’ intentional weakening of the administrative state by imploring her conservative colleagues that to really uphold legislative intent, they must respect the broad grant of power made by earlier congresses. Unfortunately, Justice Kagan’s masterpiece of logic was no match for the political pro-business ambitions of the conservative justices who abandoned their textualist beliefs to reach this decision.
When the Court took this case up, commentators predicted that this would be the new Supreme Court’s first step towards dismantling oversight of industry. The newly espoused “Major Questions Doctrine” essentially grants the Conservative Justices veto power over agency actions they simply do not like for political reasons regardless of the clarity with which Congress delegates authority to the agency. It is not the Supreme Court’s job to micromanage the EPA and other regulatory agencies aiming to keep the country’s people and environment safe.
While the Conservative Justices assert that they are saving the “Major Questions” for Congress, in actuality they are usurping the power of the elected representatives of Congress to delegate authority to agencies and injecting their own personal political beliefs. Many legal scholars are predicting that a full-frontal assault on the administrative state is inevitable with this Court. What this decision means for people living in this country: more air pollution, more water pollution, more chemical spills, more tainted drugs, more contaminated food, and in general less safety.
The TLDR version of this opinion is that the Conservative Justices in support of of business and their own personal political beliefs took power away from the people and their elected representatives to protect public health and the environment.