This afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) petition in the challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Waters of the United States regulation. We have asked the Supreme Court to review a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, where many suits challenging the WOTUS rule have been consolidated. The panel’s decision conflicts with decisions in similar cases by other federal appeals courts, which concluded that such challenges should be heard at the district court level. The NAM outlined in detail why 33 U.S.C. Section 1369(b) does not allow courts of appeals to hear this challenge. The 6th Circuit’s decision put challengers to the EPA rule in an untenable position—if that court does not actually have jurisdiction to hear the case, any action it takes could thereafter be overturned on appeal, without even considering the merits of the challenge, and we would have to start the case over at the trial court level. This would be a tremendous waste of resources for manufacturers and other parties affected by the rule, the administration and the courts. Delaying review of the jurisdictional question, which must ultimately be resolved in any case, makes no sense, so we are very pleased that the Supreme Court decided today to resolve this issue.
Last year, the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action filed our lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over their expansive interpretation of their jurisdiction to require permits for the use of a wide variety of land across the country. More than 150 other business organizations, states and other groups have also challenged the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule in various courts, and many of these challenges, including ours, have been consolidated in one federal appellate court—the Sixth Circuit. Some of this background, and the justification for our litigation, is summarized in this post from February.
Two key events have happened recently. First, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) asked the Supreme Court in September to review a splintered decision from the Sixth Circuit that allows that court to continue to hear arguments in the case, despite a widely held view among lawyers that the Clean Water Act requires the case to be heard by a trial court, not an appeals court, in the first instance. The administration will be filing its response next Monday. If the court agrees to review this issue, considerable time and effort could be saved in trying to resolve the underlying merits of the challenges to the WOTUS rule.
Second, today, business and municipal groups filed a detailed 93-page brief describing point by point the numerous concerns of all the petitioners about the rule. The brief contains textbook examples of arguments that are all too frequently made about government regulations: the rule was promulgated in violation of basic principles of notice-and-comment rulemaking, the agencies failed to comply with the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the rule is inconsistent with the statutory language of the statute (the Clean Water Act), the rule is unconstitutionally vague, and it violates the Commerce Clause and federalism principles. There are also more unusual arguments arising from EPA’s “covert propaganda” efforts in support of the rule.
Courts give agencies considerable deference when interpreting their statutory authority, but the Supreme Court has weighed in several times to try to provide some constitutional limits on the EPA’s jurisdiction, and a significant part of our brief is dedicated to it. The brief argues that the agencies relied too heavily on Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in the Rapanos case, which cannot be reconciled with the other justices’ views in the way attempted by the EPA. The EPA’s approach brings into its jurisdiction countless features that lack the volume of flow and proximity needed to ensure that effects on navigable waters are more than insubstantial or speculative.
The scope of the agencies’ jurisdiction is one of the most fundamental issues affecting the regulation of land use in the United States. Today’s brief brings us one step closer to resolving the allocation of regulatory power among federal, state and local governments.
An unusual statutory restraint on the appointment process for the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is at the heart of a significant case about to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. The provision is part of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. The court will decide whether Lafe Solomon, a long-serving NLRB official and former acting general counsel of the board for several years, could actually serve as acting general counsel in the face of statutory language prohibiting such service if he was nominated to be general counsel but had not served long enough as first assistant general counsel.
It’s a technical provision with a “notwithstanding” clause that has caused all the confusion. That clause only refers to one subsection of the law, but the rest of the statutory language refers to the entire section. A federal appeals court ruled that Solomon was prohibited from serving as acting general counsel after his nomination and that the unfair labor practice complaint that was issued on his authority was invalid.
The NLRB issues more than 1,200 complaints each year, so thousands of decisions were made by the general counsel or those to whom he delegated decision-making authority from January 5, 2011, to November 4, 2013. This challenge could allow many of those cases to be revisited.
But the case will have an impact on many other federal agencies, arguably going back to 1998. In April, the administration warned the Supreme Court that “Decisions of many former acting officers, including senior officers in the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, DOJ, DOT, Department of Defense, the Export-Import Bank and General Services Administration could be open to question under the court of appeals’ reasoning. Moreover, the decision below casts a cloud over the service of about half a dozen current acting high-level officers, including in the DOT, HHS, EPA and OPM.”
The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action is on the front lines challenging a variety of NLRB actions that skew policy and law against manufacturers in the United States. We look forward to oral arguments at the court on November 7 and a decision thereafter.
“I would not recommend, and I am confident that the Administrator would not sign, a final rule that the EPA did not believe was on firm legal footing and worthy of being upheld by the federal courts. In light of that, the effect of the draft bill would be a wholly unnecessary postponement of reductions of harmful air pollution,” said Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) Acting Air Chief Janet McCabe.
The statement above was given in a congressional hearing, while under oath to members of Congress who were debating draft legislation that would restore some regulatory certainty for businesses and state governments by delaying implementation of EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulation for the existing power sector until after the inevitable legal challenges are resolved. Read More
In a victory in the battle against the EPA’s overreach this morning the United States Supreme Court ruled on the Sackett v. EPA case in favor of the plaintiffs. The case was originally brought by an Idaho couple over the right to go to court to challenge an EPA order that blocked construction of their new home.
The couple had graded a small lot for the new house and was ordered by the EPA under the Clean Water Act to fill in the lot, replace vegetation and monitor the land for three years or face a $37,500 penalty for each day of violation. The couple then sought court review of the order but they were denied.
Today the Supreme Court ruled that the couple does have a right to go to court to get a pre-enforcement review of the order and they do not have to wait for the EPA to sue them for violating the order in order to raise their claims. While EPA still has the power to issue these kinds of orders, and most of them will never be challenged, the ruling makes judicial review possible and will help restrain the abuse of EPA’s power. The decision could restrain EPA overreach under other environmental statutes as well.
Of note was Justic Alito’s concurring opinion on the case which agreed completely with the decision but also noted that the reach of the Clean Water Act is unclear. He states that any piece of land that is wet at least part of the year is in danger of being classified by the EPA as wetlands and he says that real relief requires Congress to clarify the rule.
Real relief requires Congress to do what it should have done in the first place: provide a reasonably clear rule re-garding the reach of the Clean Water Act. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it provided that the Act covers “the waters of the United States.” 33 U. S. C. §1362(7). But Congress did not define what it meant by “the waters of the United States”; the phrase was not a term of art with a known meaning; and the words themselves are hopelessly in determinate. Unsurprisingly, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers interpreted the phrase as an essentially limitless grant of authority.
In 2008, Arizona was the first state to go beyond existing Federal laws and impose additional hiring responsibilities and penalties on employers. Some states have since followed, resulting in a state-by-state patchwork of varied enforcement and hiring mechanisms, making the process increasingly difficult, burdensome and costly for employers doing business in multiple states.
Today, the Supreme Court found that the Arizona law falls within the authority Congress has given the states and they have the right to mandate that employers use E-Verify, the Federal verification program and impose certain penalties.
Employers need a reliable, accurate and efficient employment eligibility verification system that also provides fair enforcement of the laws. This includes a consistent system that provides a coherent hiring process across all states. Manufacturers are concerned that this ruling opens the door to additional state action that will make the hiring process more confusing.
Federal preemption of state laws and a safe harbor for employers is necessary to ease the regulatory burden that will continue to be imposed one state at a time.
Joe Trauger is vice president for human resources policy, National Association of Manufacturers.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution holds a hearing this Friday on the major piece of civil justice reform legislation this Congress, the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, which will amend the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to discourage the filing of frivolous lawsuits. We have more on the legislation at Point of Law.
Bill McCollum, the former attorney general of Florida, argues in The Wall Street Journal for more transparency when state attorneys general hire outside legal counsel on contingency to sue people (mostly businesses) on behalf of the state. From “States and Lawyers’ Fees: Transparency Needed“:
Since the 2007 financial crisis, state attorneys general have stepped up consumer-protection enforcement and are well on their way to displacing federal authorities as the nation’s chief consumer-protection watchdogs.
As the former attorney general of Florida, I understand both the power and potential pitfalls of the job. This increased role and the increased visibility that comes with it mean that attorneys general must (and should) work that much harder to maintain public confidence in the integrity of their office.
The Supreme Court this week denied to hear the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s challenge to the 1998 tobacco settlement based on Congress’ failure to approve the deal as required by the Constitution’s compact clause. From CEI’s news release, “Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case Challenging Tobacco Settlement“:
“We regret the court’s decision not to take up a case of major constitutional and policy importance,” said Sam Kazman, CEI General Counsel. “The tobacco settlement imposed a massive national sales tax on cigarettes, without a single elected legislator at any level of government voting for it. This was a major power grab by state attorneys general at the expense of both citizens and our structure of government.”
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) is lobbying for the Tennessee Justice Association against Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative tort reform proposals. In the cover story for the Tennessee publication, CityView Magazine, he explains his reasoning and argues against damage caps in medical malpractice suits. We appreciated his comments about the misuse of the word “reform”:
I don’t know that there is a rush for tort reform but tort reform has kind of taken on an air of its own and you’re either for it or against it. There is no such thing as finance reform, there is no such thing as health care reform, there is no such thing as tort reform; it is only what is in the bill. It may be reform or it may just be change and not really reform. So everybody thinks all Republicans ought be for tort reform, and that if you’re not a Republican, than you should be against tort reform. I think both of those are fallacious. We ought to look at what’s being proposed.
And two interviews well worth reading …
- American Lawyer, “A Conversation With Class Action Objector Ted Frank,” about his Center for Class Action Fairness.
- The Daily Caller, “10 questions with ‘Schools for Misrule’ author Walter Olson,” on Walter’s new book, “ Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America .”
Some activists, partisans and agenda-driven journalists have argued that the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court is “pro-business.” The facts do not support the invidious claim, but we’ll be seeing it more and more as the debate nears on the President’s nominee to replace the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
Glenn Lammi of the Washington Legal Foundation debunks the contention in a post at WLF’s new blog, The Legal Pulse, “People for the American Way’s Wayward Attack on High Court, Free Enterprise“:
If the Court is so decidedly “pro-business,” then how can [People for the American Way] explain cases like last year’s Wyeth v. Levine, which allows state failure-to-warn lawsuits against makers of FDA-approved drugs? If it feels the Court openly advances the interests of tobacco producers, how does one account for the 2008 ruling Altria Group v. Good, which allowed state consumer fraud suits against such companies to go forward? Or three decisions from this year, Jones v. Harris Associates (unanimously allowing shareholder suits vs. investment advisors), Shady Grove Orthopedic v. Allstate (Scalia majority opinion permitting federal class action lawsuits in a state which prohibits such suits), and, just issued this morning [Tuesday], Merck v. Reynolds (unanimous Breyer opinion permitting securities fraud suits involving Vioxx to proceed)?
At Bench Memos, Ed Whelan addresses the parallel phenomenon, that of attacking the Roberts court for its supposed judicial activism. Whelan makes his point in debunking a column by The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. Read More
With the U.S. Supreme Court opening its 2009-2010 term Monday, a recurring theme in the media coverage was the prominence of business cases. Bloomberg, for example, reports, “Companies Seek Turnaround as Supreme Court Returns”:
[The] term will be heavy on business cases, as companies aim to rebound after a year of high court setbacks.
The nine-month term that started today will affect the fate of imprisoned former Hollinger International Inc. Chairman Conrad Black, the accounting oversight board set up by the Sarbanes-Oxley law and the sales of professional football team caps. The justices also will consider limiting investor lawsuits and making it harder to get a patent covering business methods.
- New York Times, “New Court Term May Give Hints to Views on Regulating Business”
- Washington Post, “High Court Showdown: Dogs, Guns and Sexual Predators”
- Blog of the Legal Times, “New Term, New Justice for Supreme Court.”
- Wall Street Journal (blog), “Is the US Supreme Court Losing its Relevance?
- New York Times, “The Case of the Plummeting Supreme Court Docket”
- NPR, “A Changed Court Faces Key Decisions In New Term” Excerpt:
There are many business cases before the court. One tests whether a Wall Street formula for buying and selling commodities can be patented; another tests whether the people who run mutual funds can charge higher fees to individual clients than to institutional investors like pension funds. And there’s a case testing whether the law enacted in the aftermath of the Enron scandal — to monitor public companies’ accounting — is constitutional.
UPDATE (9:05 a.m.): You know, there aren’t THAT many business cases. Maybe this is just a standard storyline that’s trotted out every October: “Business cases dominate court.” Whether they really dominate or not. And in some respects, the major case with business implications — Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board — is not a business case per se, but a case about separation of powers and delegation of authority.