US Supreme Court limits federal environmental protection

US Supreme Court limits federal environmental protection
4 min read
Washington, D.C.
01 July, 2022
The US Supreme court has issued several substantial rulings including limiting the federal government's ability to regulate carbon emissions, giving states more power over Native American land, and allowing for prayer in school settings.
The US Supreme Court has ruled on a number of important issues this month. (Getty)

The US Supreme Court has imposed limits on the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, one of several important conservative rulings the Supreme Court has made in recent days.

These include the reversal of the federal protection of abortion rights, easier access to guns in New York, the expansion of state power over Native American tribes, and more rights to public prayer which could all have repercussions for other laws for years to come.

Thursday's decision against the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate power plant emissions is the reversal of an Obama-era law that gave the federal government power to regulate carbon emissions without the authorisation of Congress.

Writing his opinion for the 6-3 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible 'solution to the crisis of the day'."

However, he argued that Congress should be the one to authorise such regulations. This has naturally led to questions about the authority of federal agencies to issue regulations.

Writing a dissent to the opinion was Justice Elena Kagan, one of the three votes opposing the ruling, including Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer.

"Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change," Kagan wrote. "And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorised agency action to curb power plants' carbon dioxide emissions."

She also criticised the conservative-majority court for designating itself the decision-maker on environmental policy.

"The Court appoints itself - instead of Congress or the expert agency - the decision maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening. Respectfully, I dissent," Kagan concluded.

Responding to the Supreme Court's decision, President Joe Biden issued a statement saying: "I have directed my legal team to work with the Department of Justice and affected agencies to review this decision carefully and find ways that we can, under federal law, continue protecting Americans from harmful pollution, including pollution that causes climate change."

Another important Supreme Court decision came just a day earlier. On Wednesday, in a 5-4 conservative majority vote, it ruled in favour of substantially increasing the power of states over Native American land. This was a departure from a 2020 decision that ruled in favour of greater tribal sovereignty on Native American land in Oklahoma.

"To be clear, the court today holds that Indian country within a state's territory is part of a state, not separate from a state," wrote conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who authored the decision.

He asserted that "under the Constitution and this court's precedents, the default is that states may exercise criminal jurisdiction within their territory".

The Supreme Court also ruled on Monday that the separation of church and state does not prohibit teachers to pray out loud near students on the job. The case came about following a high school coach who was praying on the field, along with his players.

Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the 6-3 opinion for the conservative majority, linking the right to pray on the field to freedom of expression under the First Amendment.

"Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy's [the coach]," Gorsuch wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who voted against the ruling joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, wrote the dissent.

She described the case as being "about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event".

She wrote: "The Constitution does not authorise, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct."

This week's decisions follow other important rulings this month, notably the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the federal protection of abortion rights, and another case that eases restrictions on the rights of New York residents to carry concealed weapons, a major victory for gun advocates.

Other important cases headed to the Supreme Court include a case from North Carolina that could weaken voting rights and another one that could restrict Americans' right to boycott, a right traditionally protected under the First Amendment, a response to states' anti-BDS legislation.