Supreme Court rules in favor of big polluters, bolsters dangerous new legal doctrine

In the West Virginia v. EPA ruling handed down on June 30, the Supreme Court decided that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in the manner that is desperately needed in the fight against climate change.

Previous regulations put forth by the EPA mandated that coal plants implement technologies to limit the pollution that their plants spew into the air. The type of regulation proposed in this case is of a different kind, but serves the same goal. The regulation would have changed the make-up of total energy produced in the United States by shifting some percentage of energy produced by coal and fossil fuel power plants to sources like natural gas or wind.  

Even a cursory reading of the Clean Air Act shows that the EPA clearly was granted the authority to regulate energy production in this manner. The Clean Air Act gives the EPA power to regulate all energy-producing plants, newly constructed and already existing. It also states that the EPA is to limit air pollution by formulating the “best system of emission reduction which (taking into account the cost of achieving such reduction and any non air quality health and environmental impact and energy requirements) the Administrator determines has been adequately demonstrated.” 

This ruling makes the EPA’s regulatory powers more cumbersome and costly to implement by blocking broad rules that would set state-by-state CO2 reduction targets from power plants and their ability to force shifts to clean energy production. Instead, they will have to set specific rules for each power plant. But the EPA has other strategies that can achieve the same goal of shutting down the dirtiest power plants by regulating other pollutants. Also, the ruling does not hinder state regulatory bodies from passing CO2 limits in their states, which like in the instance of California, can actually be more stringent than EPA federal standards. 

The West Virginia v EPA case was initially filed as an attempt by Big Coal and its backers to block the resurrection of Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan. Although it was never fully implemented due to a Supreme Court ruling revoking it in early 2016 and then Trump pulling it completely in 2019, the plan actually achieved its very meager emission reduction goals within 11 years, simply due to economic factors: the continuing decline in the cost of solar and wind, advances in emission control technologies, and increasing costliness of coal. 

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court used the test that it made up specifically for instances like this: the “major questions doctrine.” The major questions doctrine allows the court to strike down any regulation that has major economic or political significance if Congress, according solely to the court, did not grant the regulatory agency such authority with enough clarity. Here, the court seems to know that it is silly to say that the language of the statute does not allow for such a regulation and therefore admits that it is a reasonable interpretation, but that “something more than a merely plausible textual basis for the agency action is necessary” when dealing with questions of major economic or political significance. The court then states that an agency must point to “clear congressional authorization” in such instances which only the court and the power plants themselves appear unable to find in the Clean Air Act in this case.

Moving forward, we can expect the Supreme Court to use the major questions doctrine to strike down any regulations that the judges simply do not like as a matter of public policy. We can expect to see them strike down attempts to regulate banks and corporate greed using this doctrine. But there appears to be no prospects for regulations put forth by repressive agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to be scrutinized under such a doctrine.

Legal doctrines: tools of class rule

Legal doctrines are tools that judges use to arrive at the decisions that they were appointed to deliver. These doctrines seek to obscure that the Supreme Court is an instrument of class rule by providing the guise that the decisions are reached through the use of rigorous application of logic and long-standing legal precedent passed down through history. The major questions doctrine appeared in a Supreme Court decision for the first time in the year 2000, and is not contained anywhere in the constitution or any law passed by a legislature. It is a judicial concoction that serves to beat back popular demands. 

The people want clean air. We want a livable environment. We fought for the Clean Air Act in order to accomplish this goal. The major questions doctrine was used to counter the people’s demands and to bolster the right of corporations to make profits regardless of the human cost.  

Originalism is another one of these doctrines that the Supreme Court uses to mystify the public. This doctrine has only been used and named as such since the late 1970s and 80s and was introduced specifically in order to be wielded as a weapon against progressive movements and the Supreme Court decisions that had been won in in cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade. It was officially endorsed as the correct theory of Constitutional interpretation by the Reagan administration in 1985.  

Originalism was used by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade with its ruling in ​​Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Seventy-two percent of Americans support the right to an abortion, but the Supreme Court cherry picked history, overlooking the fact that abortion was widely practiced before the 1880s, to rule that the right to abortion is not rooted in the nation’s history and tradition and that it is not an essential component of “ordered liberty.” Originalism as a doctrine can be nothing but regressive by its very definition. 

The Supreme Court must be abolished

These legal doctrines cease to mystify when we know the true purpose of the court. The Supreme Court is an unelected, unaccountable body that serves as the ruling class’ last line of defense against all progressive movements in this country. Through these recent rulings, they are undermining the expertise of scientists and public health professionals, overturning regulations that protect people and the planet for their own political agenda. And we must be clear that the Democrats, who hold a majority in Congress, could be taking much more action to address the climate crisis beyond the regulatory mechanisms of the EPA through direct legislation. This could be won if they overturned the filibuster that has allowed rightwing Democrats to block progressive proposals. 

Biden could also declare a climate emergency, which could unlock billions of dollars annually that could be used to address the crisis. While the SCOTUS ruling is a setback, we cannot let the Democrats off the hook as if their hands were tied, but organize in the streets and demand real action. Even before this ruling, the United States was far off track from hitting their goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

The SCOTUS rulings are treated as though they were divined from on high, but they are simply the ruling class’ dictates dressed up in legal jargon. They try to hide the ruling class’ strings, but they consistently reveal themselves as the puppets that they are. They are expanding the rights of corporations to pollute the environment while stripping away women’s rights to bodily autonomy. 

The Supreme Court is a ruling class institution that promulgates ruling class ideology and rulings in its favor. The only way we ever win Supreme Court decisions is when the ruling class grants us concessions because they fear the power of the people in the streets. Thus, we must continue to fight in the streets to pick up whatever victories and concessions that we can on the road to a completely new kind of society with a new kind of government that defends the rights of the people.

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