Why Does the Supreme Court Matter to Environmentalists?

One of the hottest issues in any presidential race usually has to do with the Supreme Court, the highest court in the U.S. The 9 justices who sit on the court hold the fate of the nation in their hands. They decide lawsuits, interpret the Constitution and can change the way society is forced to behave, simply by reaching a majority decision on a case that’s brought before them.

The President nominates justices, and the U.S. Senate votes them in or out. Once appointed, a Supreme Court justice serves a life term that ends only when the justice dies or voluntarily resigns. Because a justice can stay on the court for 30 or 40 years, many people believe that of the thousands ofdecisions a president makes during his or her tenure, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice is among the most important.

Supreme Court decisions have determined whether and how the environment is protected for many decades. Here is a sample of some important decisions the court has made regarding the planet.

Endangered Species – Antonin Scalia, who recently died after 30 years as a justice, led the court’s conservative wing on limiting environmental groups’ ability to sue corporate polluters, protect public land and enforce federal water regulations.

Environmentalists use lawsuits to force polluters to obey state and federal laws on such issues as releasing toxic chemicals into the air or waterways or to protect endangered species. Scalia’s 1992 opinion in

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife

determined that Defenders (ergo, other environmental organizations) did not have “standing” to challenge endangered species protections. In other words, the Court essentially decided, in an

opinion written by Scalia

, that industry attempts to blockthe Endangered Species Act should be taken more seriously than environmental groups’ efforts to enforce it.

Clean Power Plan

– President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have issued a rule requiring states to develop plans to lower carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The


is an attempt to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change as well as limit soot and other fine particles that contribute to air pollution.

The current court has


the government’s ability to implement the plan because opponents have filed a lawsuit in the D.C. Circuit Court, which will hear arguments about the law pros and cons June 2. If the D.C. Circuit Court upholds the constitutionality of the plan, opponents could stillappeal to the Supreme Court, which could decide the plan is unconstitutional. The fate of the Clean Power Plan remains to be seen.

Mercury Pollution – Coal and oil-fired power plants emit mercury and other air pollutants. In fact, coal plants are the largest single source of mercury in our environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a federal rule aimed at reducing mercury emissions. That

rule was challenged

by twenty states that wanted the court to block the rule while the government decided how to calculate the cost of implementing it.

In a good move for the planet, Chief Justice John Roberts turned down their request and let the rule stay in effect while the costs are determined.

Citizens United

– In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in the

Citizens United Case

that corporations and labor unions can contribute unlimited amounts of money to candidates running for office. The Court also essentially gave permission to polluters todonate huge sums to sitting legislatorsin the hopes of influencing the votes they cast on new laws to protect the environment.

Here is one example of how Citizens United has played out. Richmond, California in the San Francisco Bay Area is the home of a Chevron oil refinery. Prior to Citizens United, perhaps around $100,000 would have been spent on local political races there. But in 2012, reports

Garnet Goes Green,

political action committees empowered by Citizens United poured $4 million into the races for three seats on the Richmond City Council. Of that, $2 million was contributed by Chevron.

Results? Two of Chevron’s three preferred candidates won their races in that year’s election.

Citizens United reaches far beyond the environment. The

U.S. Library of Medicine

, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has found that “corporations can now make unlimited contributions to election advocacy advertising…Candidates who favor public health positions may be subjected to corporate opposition advertising.” In other words, polluters can spend a fortune trying to defeat a candidate who wants to clean up the air or water or reduce the presence of toxic chemicals in everyday products.

“The ruling expands corporate rights to disproportionately influence the electoral process and thus health policymakers,” notes the National Library of Medicine. “The effects on public health may be catastrophic. For example, corporations could spend unlimited sums for advertising against candidates who support public health positions on issues such as taxation on sugar-sweetened drinks, air quality standards or access to reproductive services.”

The environment always seems to be under attack. Often, our only recourse is to sue to invoke protections afforded the planet by suchlaws as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act or


, the National Environmental Policy Act.

The buck stops with the Supreme Court. However justices interpret the law, whether to protect the environment or protect the polluters, will reverberate across the planet for decades to come. The Supreme Court can be our last best hopeor our worst one.


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Why Does the Supreme Court Matter to Environmentalists?

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