Supreme Shocker: Environmental Law in the Scalia Era

 Photo: Ryan Stoa.

Photo: Ryan Stoa.

Last Thursday in my Ocean and Coastal Law class, we discussed the Supreme Court's majority opinion in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council.  The opinion, written, by Justice Scalia, required the state of South Carolina to find "background principles" that would have prevented the plaintiff in the case from building on his property before the state enacted regulations that prevented construction on coastal lands for the purpose of environmental protection.  Unable to do so, South Carolina was eventually required to pay compensation for the regulation.  Although a controversial case, most of my students found Scalia's reasoning persuasive, a testament to his skills of argumentation.

After his passing, many have questioned what his death will mean for the Clean Power Plan.  I wrote last week about the stunning implications of the Supreme Court's stay of the plan (putting it on hold until the DC Circuit Court hears the case).  Since Scalia was part of the 5 justices voting for the stay (with 4 against), his passing makes it less likely the CPP will be struck down.  As many others have speculated (see examples here, here, and here), a justice appointed by President Obama, or a hypothetical President Clinton or Sanders, would very likely be more friendly to the CPP than Justice Scalia.  If the Supreme Court doesn't have a ninth justice by the time the DC Circuit issues its ruling, then a 4-4 decision from the Supreme Court would simply maintain the DC Circuit ruling.  And as has been noted, the government got a bit lucky there: the 3-judge panel selected from the DC Circuit court (which has a reputation for being conservative) consists of two judges appointed by Democratic presidents.   

Here's another wrinkle: one of the judges on the DC Circuit panel hearing the case is Sri Srinivasan, an early front-runner for the Supreme Court vacancy in the eyes of many observers.  If he recused himself from the Circuit or was confirmed by the Senate fairly quickly, another judge would be appointed to the Circuit court, which could alter the outcome of the decision.  Alternatively, if Srinivasan participates in the Circuit decision and then gets confirmed, he might recuse himself from the Supreme Court hearing of the case, leaving the door open for a 4-4 decision.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.  In the meantime, Dan Farber provides a summary of Scalia's environmental legacy that bears reflection:

Administrative law.  The Chevron test says that an agency’s interpretation of a statute is entitled to deference.  It can be set aside only if it is contrary to an unambiguous statute or if it is an unreasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute.  There are only three cases in which the Supreme Court has ever held that a statute’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute was unreasonable, all three written by Scalia: Whitman v. American Trucking, UARG v. EPA, and Michigan v. EPA.  In all three cases, the “unreasonable” agency was EPA.  To be fair, in American Trucking, he did admit that another portion of the statute unambiguously required air quality standards to be based solely on health effects, not cost.

Property rights.  Justice Scalia wrote two major opinions elevating property rights over land use controls.  In the Lucas case, he held that a government regulation is a taking if it completely blocks development or other economic use of the land.  In the Nolan case, he held that even when the government would be justified in denying a permit completely, it can’t impose “logically unrelated” conditions on the permit, even if those conditions are in the public interest. In Stop the Beach Renourishment, he tried to freeze property law in place for all time by holding that a decision by a state supreme court reinterpreting state property law can be a taking.

Standing.  Justice Scalia wrote major opinions limiting standing for environmental groups in National Wildlife FederationDefenders of Wildlife, and Summers v. Earth Island Institute, Scalia narrowed standing law, making it more difficult for environmental groups to sue.

Federal jurisdiction. In Rapanos,  a plurality opinion by Scalia attempted to cut back drastically on federal authority over wetlands and streams.  Justice Kennedy, the swing voter, wrote a more nuanced opinion that gave the federal government more maneuvering room.