The Supreme Court’s big EPA decision is a massive power grab by the justices

West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency strikes down a federal environmental regulation of power plants that never took effect, that the Biden administration has no intention of reinstating, and that would have accomplished absolutely nothing even if it had be enforced.

Nevertheless, the Court voted along ideological lines to strike down this regulation that the EPA drafted under authority granted by the Clean Air Act, claiming that it amounts to an “extraordinary” overreach by the EPA. And their decision has enormous implications both for the environment and for the federal government more broadly.

At the very least, the West Virginia decision strips the EPA of its authority to shift energy production away from dirty coal-fired plants and toward cleaner methods of energy production — although market forces have thus far accomplished much of this shift on their own, because coal-fired plants are often more expensive to operate than cleaner plants. The decision could also lead to additional limits on the EPA’s ability to regulate that industry going forward.

The West Virginia decision confirms something that has been implicit in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions governing federal agencies’ power to issue binding regulations under authority granted by Congress: When a majority of the Supreme Court disagrees with a regulation pushed out by a federal agency, the Court has given itself the power to veto that regulation — and it will do so by invoking something known as the “major questions doctrine.”

Under this doctrine, the Court explained in a 2014 opinion, “we expect Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.’” Thus, if a majority of the Court deems a regulation to be too significant, it will strike it down unless Congress very explicitly authorized that particular regulation.

This doctrine comes from nowhere. Last week, the Court said that abortion is unprotected by the Constitution — leaning heavily on the fact that abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution. But the the major questions doctrine is also mentioned nowhere in the Constitution. Nor can it be found in any statute. The justices made it up. And, at least during President Joe Biden’s administration, the Court has wielded it quite aggressively to veto regulations that the Court’s conservative majority finds objectionable.

Roberts’s majority opinion in West Virginia does put some flesh on the fairly bare bones the justices have previously used to describe when they will declare something to be a “major question.” Roberts faults the EPA for issuing a novel kind of regulation pursuant to a “long-extant” statute that had not previously been used to justify similar actions. He claims that the EPA relied on an “ancillary provision” of the Clean Air Act, rather than a more central provision of that law. And he criticizes the EPA for issuing a regulation which resembles bills that Congress previously considered but did not enact.

But these judgments aredivorced from the text of the Clean Air Act itself. And Roberts admits that the major questions doctrine can nuke a regulation even when there is a “colorable textual basis” supporting that regulation — that is, when the actual words of a federal law could support the action taken by a federal agency.

The bottom line after the West Virginia decision is that agencies may still exercise regulatory authority, but only subject to a judicial veto. The Supreme Court has effectively placed itself at the head of much of the executive branch of the federal government.”

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