April 20, 2011
If the Clean Air Act Displaces Public Nusiance Claims, What Happens if Congress Displaces the Clean Air Act?
During yesterday’s oral argument of AEP v. Connecticut, it seems that things did not go so well for the states attempting to address climate change through public nuisance litigation, see for example here, here, here, and here as representative of typical prognostications of the argument. Because those reading the tea leaves seem to agree the states will lose, the main question up for grabs is how they will go down.
Earlier today, Richard Frank posted a very thoughtful post on this subject. According to Professor Frank, the states will likely lose on the grounds that the Clean Air Act displaces the ability of litigants to bring public nuisance suits arising from greenhouse gas emissions because they are covered by the Act. This is certainly the gist, for example, of the now familiar Justice Ginsburg barb: “Congress told EPA to set the standards [in the Clean Air Act]. You are setting up a District judge as a kind of ‘super EPA.’”
I agree with Prfoessor Frank. However, if this is how the case is resolved, it is interesting to speculate whether or not congressional attempts to strip EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, if indeed successful, would reopen the door for public nuisance claims. In other words, by displacing the Clean Air Act’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases would Congress also displace a litigant’s ability to argue that the Clean Air Act displaces such public nuisance claims?
Indeed, as the attorneys and the Justices have prepped for AEP’s oral argument over the past few weeks, the news has been filled with the unfolding saga of many of those in Congress attempting to eliminate or cutback the Clean Air Act’s reach to regulate greenhouse gases.
Additionally, as the Justices work into the summer attempting to hammer out an opinion in this case, it also seems likely that further efforts to eliminate or cut back the EPA’s power in this area will continue. In fact, on the heels of the most recent attempt to make EPA’s regulation the ransom necessary to avoid a shutdown of the federal government, Speaker Boehner told us this will not be the last attempt to go after EPA’s regulatory powers. Looking forward, it seems that the question of raising the country’s debt ceiling, which is probably going to be debated within the next few weeks, is a very likely flashpoint in this ongoing congressional battle.
As disturbing as it might be if litigants like those in AEP v. Connecticut ask a district court to act like a Super EPA, one has to question what happens if EPA is forced to act as a Miniature EPA or stripped of its power to act like EPA at all.
-- Brigham Daniels
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