by Justin Pidot, Associate Professor of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
In its last decision of the 2014 term, the Supreme Court decided Michigan v. EPA, ruling that EPA must consider costs before deciding to regulate toxic air pollutants from power plants. Lisa Heinzerling has identified the many questions that remain open in the wake of the Court’s decision. And Dan Farber and Ann Carlson also provide insightful commentary on the meaning of the decision. As all three suggest, the lasting practical effect of the Court’s decision on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants remains to be seen.
Without retreading ground that has been well-covered already, I want to offer two observations. First, I want to offer some (very cautious) optimism that the legal rule provided by the Michigan v. EPA decision has little effect. Read broadly, the decision could require agencies in many contexts to consider costs before regulating. I’m not convinced, however, that the decision necessarily tells us anything about when agencies must consider costs.
The Court offers several reasons that EPA unreasonably interpreted its authority to regulate power plants without accounting for the billions of dollars of costs such regulation might impose:
First, the Court explains that the toxic air pollution provisions of § 112 of the Clean Air Act differentiate between power plants and other stationary sources. For sources other than power plants, the Act essentially allows EPA to consider, at most, health and environmental effects. In contrast, the Act requires EPA to regulate power plants only if “necessary and appropriate.” This contrast, the Court offers, must mean something.
Second, the Court opines that appropriate regulation generally requires an agency to think about both the benefits of regulation and its cots. This suggests, that could be read to presumptively require agencies to consider costs in making regulatory decisions.
Monday, the Supreme Court Justices delivered their oral opinion summaries in the Term's high-profile death penalty decision, Glossip v. Gross. Rather than reading from his concurring opinion or from a prepared statement, Justice Antonin Scalia -- still frazzled from release of the same-sex marriage cases -- appeared to be improvising. He accused Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of expressing personal "policy preferences," and added that the "two justices are willing to kill the death penalty outright rather than just pecking it to death." Why the defensiveness and outrage?
Glossip was a 5-4 victory for death penalty states, which retained leeway to use new and untested lethal-injection "cocktails." Scalia was part of the majority but he sounded strangely like he was uttering last words. Justice Samuel Alito's presentation of the majority opinion was also unusually defensive and hostile to the dissenters. Justice Alito insists it is "settled that the death penalty is constitutional." In a career-defining dissent, Justice Breyer showed just how unsettled the American death penalty remains.
The precise legal question in Glossip was whether states could use midazolam as the anesthetic in a three-drug legal-injection cocktail. For years, states used sodium thiopental, until suppliers stopped selling it for use in executions. Many states turned to pentobarbital, which also became difficult to obtain. Oklahoma turned to midazolam, considered more of an anti-anxiety medication than an anesthetic. After several "botched" executions, the Supreme Court agreed to hear whether improvements to Oklahoma's cocktail -- including a 400 percent increase the midazolam dosage -- satisfied the Eighth Amendment. Holding that it did, the Court seemed to announce a rule that an execution could not be Cruel and Unusual under the Eighth Amendment unless there is a "known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain." Justice Sotomayor dissented, calling this a "surreal" endorsement of inhumane "human experimentation."
Justice Breyer did more. Joined by Justice Ginsburg, he wrote a dissent arguing that the death penalty is flat out unconstitutional, and he characteristically loaded his opinion with empirical data. In doing so, Breyer and Ginsburg joined the ranks of predecessors such as John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun who, in their later years on the Court, declared they no longer believed that there exists a constitutional way to administer capital sentences. In 1994, an 85 year-old Blackmun penned a memorable single-Justice dissent swearing off his participation in capital process: "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." For Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, the death penalty cannot escape a dilemma's horns -- the procedural protections necessary to make the penalty reliable mean that the process takes so long that it no longer serves its retributive or deterrent purposes.
Chris Weller writes at Business Insiderabout comments by Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler explaining how pride for the Confederate flag is “to be proud of a legacy of terrorism and violence.”
At Slate, Leon Neyfakh considers whether bail, which allows the wealthy to walk free while the poor wait in jail, is unconstitutional.
With his landmark opinion in Obergefell v Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy cemented his legacy as a gay rights icon. “He will be remembered for these decisions perhaps more than any other,” said Camilla Taylor, counsel and director of Lambda Legal’s marriage project. What makes this all the more remarkable, is that Justice Kennedy wasn’t supposed to be a justice at all. He was Reagan’s more conciliatory choice, the one who was “popular with colleagues of all political persuasions,” after the failed nomination of the far more right-wing Robert Bork.
The effort against Bork has been immortalized in Senator Edward Kennedy’s speech on “Robert Bork’s America.” "To Bork" has entered the American lexicon as a hyperbolic attack on a good person.
The reality, however, is that Bork was outside the legal mainstream. Whereas Senator Kennedy led an effort to skewer Bork, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee led a far more substantive critique of Bork’s extremism that proved pivotal in the fight over the nomination. That senator was Joseph Biden.
Bork was nominated with impeccable credentials- a professor at Yale Law School and a Judge on the D.C. Circuit court of appeals. The Senate had traditionally questioned the qualifications of a nominee but an inquiry into their judicial philosophy had not been done in a full-throated manner. Bork, however, had built his academic career disparaging an array of civil rights cases and Biden thought it was necessary to dig in on what exactly this nominee’s views of the Constitution were and what he would do on the Court.
While others wanted Biden to go after Bork’s personal life, he took the higher road. “When confronted with a request to subpoena Judge Bork’s video rental records in a search for possible pornography, Mr. Biden refused,” noted Jeff Rosen (then a Biden intern).
Instead, Biden went into an in-depth hearing on Bork’s understanding of the Constitution. Biden, as Rosen noted, focused the “questioning on Judge Bork’s substantive views about the right to privacy." In 1965, the Court in Griswold had ruled that a law banning the use of contraceptives by a married couple was unconstitutional as a violation of the “right to marital privacy.” Professor Bork had built his career criticizing decisions like Griswold and Biden used the hearings as a way to highlight just how extreme Bork was.
In the hearings, Biden, at some length, prodded Bork on his argument against Griswold. Bork gave “weak-kneed statements from a man known for verbal muscle,” as one historian notes. Biden’s objective was not to disprove Bork’s views explicitly but he was able to discredit him in the court of public opinion. The strategy worked.
The concern raised about Bork was that he had always been opposed to the development of new liberties and was unlikely to be a defender of liberty on the Court. “As one imagines the kinds of great new issues that might come before the court in the years ahead, there surely are reasons to fear that on these great issues, Judge Bork will not be there when it counts,” testified Bork’s Yale Law colleague Paul Gewirtz at a Biden-led hearing.