osted on March 25, 2011 by James R. May
Perhaps the most interesting recent injection of constitutional law into environmental policy involves the use of the political question doctrine regarding common law claims. For a half decade, states and individuals have turned to common law causes of action for redress in climate litigation. See James R. May, Climate Change, Constitutional Consignment, and the Political Question Doctrine, 85 Denv. U. L. Rev. 919 (2008). Federal common-law causes of action, including those for public nuisance, provide potential—although imperfect and problematic—means for judicial cognizance of and redress for these effects. See id. Nonetheless, some federal courts have determined the seldom used “political question doctrine” bars them from “entering the climate change thicket,” reasoning the matter is consigned to the coordinate branches of government. Id. at 957-59.
This legal development is astonishing, because until recently the political question doctrine had touched only about a half dozen matters—including matters which are demonstrably committed to a coordinate branch of government, require an initial policy determination, lack ascertainable standards, or could otherwise result in judicial embarrassment—that are nonjusticiable. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962). For example, the Court has recognized executive power over foreign affairs, impeachment, and treaty abrogation as political questions into which courts ought to decline jurisdiction, finding them to be consigned to the elected federal branches of government under the “political question doctrine.” James R. May, Constitutional Law and the Future of Natural Resource Protection, in The Evolution of Natural Resources Law and Policy 124, 146 (Lawrence J. MacDonnell & Sarah F. Bates eds., 2009). Climate change litigation has now entered this mix, most recently in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., Civ. Action No. 10-174.
In the case below, American Electric Power Co., 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009), the Second Circuit held no aspect of the political question doctrine applied to enjoin judicial review. In particular, the circuit court found climate change is neither constitutionally consigned to the elected branches, nor prudentially left to them. The utility defendants filed a petition for certiorari to reverse the Second Circuit’s ruling, arguing (1) states and other plaintiffs lack standing, (2) federal law preempts plaintiffs’ claims, and (3) the case raises nonjusticiable political questions. Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., Petition for Certiorari, Civ. Action No. 10-174; AEP Cert. Petition at i, 13, 20, and 26. In late August 2010, the Obama Administration filed a brief in support of the utility defendants’ petition, arguing plaintiffs lack prudential standing, and federal law displaces the need for common law causes of action for climate change. Brief for Tenn. Valley Auth. in Supp. of Pet’rs , Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., No. 10-174. In its brief, the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office argues (i) first plaintiffs lack prudential standing under the standard articulated in the First Amendment Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1 (2004) decision—and largely for the same non-justiciability reasons defendants argue in favor of applying the political question doctrine; and (ii) second, EPA activities during the last 12 months, including the final reporting rule, the proposed tailoring, cement kiln, and light duty truck emission rules, and other activities displace the need for common law causes of action under the standards set in the Court’s Middlesex County Sewerage Auth. v. Nat’l Sea Clammers Ass’n, 453 U.S. 1 (1981) and Milwaukee v. Ill., 451 U.S. 304 (1981) decisions.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, with Justice Sotomayor recusing herself, which seems to increase the prospects of a 4-4 split. Oral argument in the case is set for April 19, 2011. Whatever the Court decides in AEP v. Connecticut is sure to rock the foundation of climate law and policy for many years – perhaps generations – to come.