SCOTUS to EPA: You Are Not Above the Law

In perhaps the most significant check on agency power in recent history, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 6-3 opinion today in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, holding that Congress did not implicitly grant the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to devise stringent emissions caps under the Clean Air Act.

The Supreme Court, in recognizing the “Major Questions Doctrine,” held that Congress did not bestow broad authority on the EPA under the Clean Air Act to devise stringent emissions caps, like those in Obama’s Clean Power Plan which sought to fight climate change by reducing carbon pollution from power plants.  This means that going forward, Congress must explicitly provide agencies, not just the EPA, with explicit authority to enact major rules for them to do so.  

Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, explains the Major Questions Doctrine controls this case and future cases concerning the broad rulemaking authority of executive agencies:

Under this body of law, known as the major questions doctrine, given both separation of powers principles and a practical understanding of legislative intent, the agency must point to “clear congressional authorization” for the authority it claims…

EPA claimed to discover an unheralded power representing a transformative expansion of its regulatory authority in the vague language of a long-extant, but rarely used, statute designed as a gap filler. That discovery allowed it to adopt a regulatory program that Congress had conspicuously declined to enact itself. Given these circumstances, there is every reason to “hesitate before concluding that Congress” meant to confer on EPA the authority it claims [to have].

Writing for the Dissent, Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Breyer, lamented the Court’s decision, “Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.’ Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U. S. 497, 505 (2007).”

Leader Mitch McConnell commended the Supreme Court on its decision to give power back to the people:

Today, the Supreme Court gave power back to the people. In siding with the state of West Virginia, the Court has undone illegal regulations issued by the EPA without any clear congressional authorization and confirmed that only the people’s representatives in Congress – not unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats – may write our nation’s laws…

I am glad the Supreme Court affirmed this fact and hope other overeager bureaucrats take notice.

As the America First Policy Institute’s David Bernhardt explains, this ruling is incredible news for American democracy:  “The Supreme Court’s decision returns power to the people. It means that the people make the rules through their elected representatives — not federal bureaucrats.”