Friday, September 23, 2016

The Path of Unprecedented and Unusual Occurrences: The Clean Power Plan Goes to Court


By Edward Jewell, Energy Fellow

Credit: Energy.gov
On Tuesday, September 27, the U.S. government will defend EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) in front of an en banc panel of judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The CPP regulates the amount of carbon emissions that a state’s energy generation sector can emit into the atmosphere, and is considered the signature component of President Obama’s domestic efforts to mitigate climate change. It is under legal attack from 27 states and industry representatives (referred to herein as petitioners).

Tuesday will be the first time that a court will hear the merits of the petitioners’ case, West Virginia v. U.S. Envt’l Prot. Agency, but the CPP has already accumulated a lengthy and unique procedural history. This blog post will provide a brief primer on the legal drama thus far.

The first chapter in the CPP’s legal saga took place before EPA had even finalized the rule establishing the CPP. Despite clear statutory text in the Administrative Procedure Act stating that there must be a final agency action before a suit can be brought in federal court to challenge an agency action, 12 states and industry representatives sued on the proposed rule. Petitioners argued that due to the long planning time inherent in the electricity sector, states would have to start taking actions to comply with the proposed rule immediately. Therefore, they argued, they ought to be allowed to sue on the proposed rule. The D.C. Circuit readily denied this longshot (borderline superfluous) argument.

As soon as the final rule was released, petitioners again filed suit. Petitioners asked the D.C. Circuit to halt implementation of the CPP by granting a stay, but the D.C. Circuit denied the motion. However, as Staff Attorney Amelia Schlusser blogged about at the time, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) itself stepped in to put a stay on the implementation of the CPP. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy voted to enjoin implementation of the rule pending disposition by the Supreme Court or denial of cert. This move was unprecedented and was also one of Justice Scalia’s last judicial actions before his death. His absence from the SCOTUS bench certainly alters the complexion of the case.

After SCOTUS issued the stay, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided to go straight to an en banc panel rather than the usual three judge panel, meaning that all judges on the D.C. Circuit would hear the case. Staff Attorney Amelia Schlusser covered this development here.

Until just this week (mere days before oral argument) it appeared that two of the twelve D.C. Circuit judges, including SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland, were not going to hear the case, making the CPP’s en banc panel a nine-judge panel. However, continuing the theme of legal twists and turns that this case has taken before even reaching oral arguments on the merits, Judge Pillard, who did not participate in the court’s announcement of an en banc hearing and was therefore considered unlikely to sit for the case, was added to the panel. Thus, the panel (as it is currently constituted) sits at ten judges.

The three-judge panel initially scheduled to hear the case was considered by most observers to be an advantageous draw for the future of the CPP because two of the three judges were Democratic appointees. With the nine-judge panel, five judges were Democratic appointees and four were Republican appointees, more or less maintaining the ideological balance of the three-judge panel. Judge Pillard, however, is an Obama appointee, and thus the panel now sits at six Democratic and four Republican appointees. If you consider the party that appoints a judge to be a decent proxy for determining a judge’s ideology, then the panel appears favorable to the government.

Regardless of the makeup, the ten-judge en banc panel will certainly change the dynamics of the courtroom and how the case will be argued. With ten judges instead of three, advocates will be less able to target their arguments directly toward the sensibilities of particular judges.

Furthermore, a ten-judge panel obviously creates a much greater potential for a tie at the D.C. Circuit than did the three or nine-judge panels. Normally when an en banc panel in the D.C. Circuit results in a tie, the opinion of the original three-judge panel is upheld. There is no original opinion of a three-judge panel in this case. What happens in the event of a tie in this situation is not altogether apparent. Perhaps the case would be scheduled for rehearing and there would be an eleventh judge eligible to hear the case by that time. Perhaps not.

While the CPP is almost certainly destined for review in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling of the ten-judge panel at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is nonetheless an important step in the CPP’s tumultuous journey. For starters, the current eight member composition of the U.S. Supreme Court creates the potential for another tie, this time a 4-4 split. Depending on how long the D.C. Circuit takes to issue an opinion, the earliest SCOTUS could hear the case would be next February or March. But more likely, the case would not be scheduled until October. Therefore, it’s possible that there will be a ninth justice when and if SCOTUS hears the case.

In the case of a 4-4 split, the opinion from the D.C. Circuit would be upheld without an opinion from SCOTUS. However, many observers have cautioned that SCOTUS is unlikely to issue a split opinion with no majority on a case of such extensive nationwide consequence. Ideologically speaking, a 4-4 split is by no means out of the question. Justice Kennedy, the ever critical swing vote, and essential piece to the liberal wing of the court being able to gain a 5-3 majority, is known as being sympathetic to states’ rights arguments. If SCOTUS lands on a 4-4 draw, the Chief Justice could then reschedule arguments on a rehearing for a later date and hope that reason prevails on the Hill and Justice Scalia’s vacancy is filled.

The ramifications of the case for the national economy and the global atmosphere are significant (though prone to hyperbole as well as legitimate debate). The substantive legal questions at the heart of the case are likewise significant. The high stakes and tough questions combined with the perplexing political climate and unexpected passing of Justice Scalia have all combined to make quite the buildup.

Tune in Tuesday morning to see how the plot thickens.  

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