Too often, it is the often-overlooked branch of our federal government that affects the real decisions facing our nations more prudently than either of the other, more-transient branches are capable. Whereas the Clinton administration placed merit into protecting environmental interests, the Bush administration has debated semantics while dragging its feet on pressing matters. But it is the non-elected arm which has come out to aid the environmental cause in a way neither legislation nor enforcement possibly could. Elections are great for many reasons, but perhaps the greatest is that it allows for presidents from a broad spectrum of ideologies to appoint our lifetime judiciary.
The Supreme Court ruled today in a 5-4 decision on case 05-1120, Massachusetts v. EPA, in a landmark decision that will force the Bush administration to review and revise its increasingly-lax policies on global warming and greenhouse emissions. First petitioned to the Supreme Court on 2 May 2006, this case was brought by twenty-five states and environmental groups which have become increasingly perturbed with Bush’s inaction on environmental degradation leading to global warming. The administration, in turn, has waffled in providing a decisive response. Instead making excuses, including its foreign-policy considerations to oil-providing nations openly hostile to our regime, Bush has even argued whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the right to regulate tailpipe emissions under the 1990 Clean Air Act and its 1997 revisions.
The nine justices of our highest judicial body faced three important questions relating to emissions regulation:
Does the 1990 Clean Air Act give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles?
Does the Environmental Protection Agency reserve the right not to regulate those emissions?
Do states have the right to sue the Environmental Protection Agency to challenge decisions it feels fail to adequately address problems?
The first question addresses the range of permission granted to the EPA by the Clean Air Act to regulate automobile emissions. To answer this, a better understanding of the Clean Air Act must be reached. This legislation grants the EPA the right to set limits on the emission of any particulate deemed dangerous to the national air quality. Working with state environmental protection agencies, the EPA was granted broader powers of execution in 1990 to enforce its regulatory levels. And clauses pertaining to mobile-source pollution require the requisite federal agency – the Environmental Protection Agency – to set emissions standards for the tailpipes of all new automobiles, and enforce their enactment by the automobile industry. Thus, it is no surprise that the Supreme Court found that the EPA has a “statutory obligation” to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from the tailpipes of automobiles.
The second question posed to the Supreme Court addresses the root of the initial Massachusetts suit: that the Environmental Protection Agency was failing to fulfill its duties in enacting and enforcing the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court was forced to determine whether or not the EPA and executive branch had the discretionary power to not enforce the regulation. Returning to its tired excuses, the Environmental Protection Agency trooped out its laundry list of loopy logic to justify its non-compliance with its legislated duties. The Supreme Court, while refraining from making a definitive decree on the matter, demanded that the EPA reevaluate its policies and rationale and make them fall in line with the spirit of the Clean Air Act.
The final question addresses the validity of the initial suit. It essentially asks whether a state is legally permitted to bring legal action against a federal executive agency as a redress of grievances. The majority opinion declared that Massachusetts had the right to come forth with this petition. However, this is where the conservative justices – Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito – used this question as the springboard for their dissent on the entirety of the case. Arguing that the realization of answers to these questions are the domain of negotiation between states and the executive branch, rather than the deliberation of the judiciary, the dissenting justices postulated that the court was overstepping its boundaries in hearing the case. Further polarizing the court, Justice Scalia argued that the majority opinion was “substituting its own desired outcome for the reasoned judgment of the responsible agency.”
But this decision, despite the negativity of the conservative justices, is a landmark case that will force ever-increasing evaluation of how the EPA regulates emissions and whether it is neglecting its appointed duties. The Supreme Court ruling, rather than preaching a particular doctrine, looks forward to a future where America’s progeny will be able to survive and thrive. Without addressing the perils of continued federal inaction, as this decision has done eloquently and succinctly, we are dooming our nation’s children to a world unfit for human habitation. Now, thanks to our unelected, longer-thinking branch of government, we may have hope of addressing our collective damage and staving off the inevitable decay of the only planet we have. American culture may continue its disposable and transitory ways, but we can never forget that throwing away this planet throws away all of our chances for survival…