Almost as soon as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia joined the bench in the fall of 1986, he made clear his disdain for arguments that the meaning of statutory text could be gleaned from its legislative history. And advocates before the Court who made the mistake of equating “congressional intent” with a statement made by an individual member of Congress during a hearing or a colloquy on a chamber floor could expect a sharp rebuke from the Justice.
The debate at the Court about the proper role of legislative history in statutory construction was not fully joined, however, until 1994 when Justice Stephen Breyer joined the bench. From the outset, Breyer, a former Senate staffer, made equally plain his view that legislative history was both fair game and could be highly relevant.
Indeed, Scalia’s and Breyer’s contrasting views regarding textualism in both statutory and constitutional interpretation became so celebrated that they literally took their debate on the road. To be sure, theirs was a far cry from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates on slavery 150 years earlier, but for legal scholars and Supreme Court observers, it was High Court entertainment.
During the oral arguments last month before the Supreme Court in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, Justice Breyer managed to take the debate to yet a new level. The issue before the Justices concerned the lawfulness of EPA’s regulations applying the Clean Air Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration Program to the emissions of greenhouse gases from new and modified stationary sources. As the Justices struggled to decipher the meaning of statutory terms and phrases that befuddle even seasoned environmental lawyers, Justice Breyer made a surprising reference. He did not merely ask what Senator Edmund Muskie, the bill’s chief sponsor, might have been intending in drafting the language at dispute before the Court. He asked what “Mr. Billings, I think, is the staff person” would have intended if faced with the policy issue that EPA now faced in trying to apply the language he drafted to greenhouse gases.
The Supreme Court courtroom was filled to capacity for the argument. Yet, I can probably safely say that fewer than ten, and likely fewer than five people in the room had any idea to whom the Justice was referring. And those few most certainly did not include any of the Justice’s colleagues on the bench or any of the advocates before him.
But for a few of us, who thrive on environmental law’s history, it was a moment of glory. The Justice was referring, of course, to Leon Billings who was Senator Ed Muskie’s chief staffer for the drafting of almost all of the nation’s path-breaking environmental laws during the 1970s, including, as the Justice correctly surmised, the Clean Air Act of 1970. The statutes were revolutionary in their reach, as they sought no less than to redefine the relationship of human activities to the nation’s environment.
Not relying merely on the soaring rhetoric of a law like the National Environmental Policy Act, these new pollution control laws got into the nitty-gritty of lawmaking. They addressed the extent to which costs, benefits, risk assessment, scientific uncertainty, and technological availability should all be relevant in determining the pollution control standards. They brokered compromises across partisan divides and remained nonetheless exceedingly ambitious and demanding in their reach.
The nation, more than four decades later, has reason to be grateful for the work of former congressional staffers like Leon Billings. Their impressive work lies in sharp contrast to that of Congresses over the past twenty plus years, which have passed no comparably significant environmental laws and done little more than deepen partisan divides even further. For that reason, the Supreme Court shout-out to “Mr. Billings” was a great moment at the Court. And the Justice’s question an apt one too.