The Truth about Sue and Settle that Scott Pruitt Ignores

Posted on December 4, 2017 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

Seth Jaffe’s post about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s sue and settle directive is right on. As he notes, the Administrator punts on the question at the core of his holy war against sue and settle: that is, what is the evidence that sue and settle has been abused in the way he presumes?  In particular, was sue and settle systematically used during the Obama administration as a vehicle of collusion between environmental groups and sympathetic agency officials, catering to the greens through rulemaking in secret? That was the characterization advanced by the Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business and anti-regulatory groups that made sue and settle a battle cry in their war against Obama’s environmental policies. Without citing any evidence, Pruitt has proceeded as if that characterization is correct.

A careful, fact-based, analytically disciplined examination of the practice of sue and settle during the Obama administration shows that this characterization is not correct.  That examination appeared in a law review note by a former law student of mine, Ben Tyson, who went on to clerk for Chief Justice Roberts on the Supreme Court.  I recommend that anyone who is interested in this issue -- and who delights in careful research and analysis – read the entire article. But here’s a brief summary for those who don’t have the time.

Tyson’s analysis is based on eighty-eight sue and settle cases arising under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered species act during the Obama administration.  This data set includes twenty-eight cases that were missed by the Chamber of Commerce in its 2013 report, Sue and Settle: Regulating Behind Closed Doors.  In his analysis Tyson is careful to distinguish between decision-forcing consent decrees, which simply require the agency to do what it is statutorily required to do and do not have a potentially adverse effect on public participation in rulemaking, and substantive consent degrees, in which the agency agrees to propose a particular regulatory change, with dismissal of the litigation dependent upon adoption of that change after public notice and comment. Of the total eighty-eight sue and settle suits, seventy-nine were brought by environmental groups.  But all but four of these suits by environmentalists sought decision-forcing consent decrees, not substantive outcomes. And in three of those four cases, there was at least one industry intervenor that had a right to be heard on the proposed decree.  Tyson concludes: “Sue-and-settle, when used by environmental group plaintiffs, is not principally about secret, backdoor rulemaking.” Instead, overwhelmingly, environmental groups used litigation to enforce existing statutory requirements. 

Ironically, although industry brought far fewer sue and settle suits overall (only nine compared to the environmental groups’ 79), five of those suits resulted in consent decrees with substantive terms. And there was no environmental intervenor in any of those cases to contest entry of the consent decree. Based on the data, industry used sue and settle to achieve substantive outcomes more often than environmental groups. And the total number of substantive sue and settle suits by industry and environmental groups was relatively small (9, or 10% of the 88 cases). Improving public participation is always worth attention, but one wonders what all the fuss was about.



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