This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst
During a week of landmark (some might call “supreme”) judicial rulings at the federal level on issues concerning immigration and healthcare, another pivotal ruling was issued from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that gave legitimacy to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The three-judge panel unanimously denied industry and state petitions that sought to invalidate the federal agency’s position that greenhouse gases pose a health risk and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The court held that EPA’s endangerment finding and tailpipe rules on greenhouse gases are “neither arbitrary nor capricious and found the agency’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act to be “unambiguously correct.” Challengers to the EPA rules included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Mining Association, the National Association of Manufacturers as well as the states of Texas and Virginia. Judges on the panel consisted of two appointees from President Clinton and one (the Chief Justice) from President Reagan.
The ruling will in no way slow continued attempts from the legislative branch to prevent EPA from implementing regulations that seek to curb greenhouse gas emmissions. A host of riders included in the House Interior Appropriations bill that would seek to prevent funding a host of EPA initiatives that seek to regulate everything from greenhouse gas emissions and asbestos to pesticide labeling and lead paint.
The Republican-controlled House has already passed bills that seek to stifle EPA’s regulatory reach, including a bill from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), who was highly critical of the court ruling. To date, President Obama has not had to wield his veto pen for the bills his administration opposes because the Democratic-controlled Senate’s key leaders have supported EPA’s regulatory efforts. However, because Senate Democrats lack a strong supermajority, it is difficult to get partisan legislation through the Senate, whose rules often require 60 votes to counter a filibuster whereas the House generally runs under a simple majority rule.
For better or worse, the court system is not held by policymakers as the final arbiter over whether an existing law or statute is legal or constitutional. However, there is a consensus that once a court has ruled on a given issue, overturning such a ruling is difficult given the diverse interests (and individuals), which must all be in strong unison among the legislative and executive branch to do so.
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