To understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s order on greenhouse-gas regulations, I had to read it three times — and I’m a law professor. The complication isn’t a coincidence. It’s the very essence of the imprint that Chief Justice John Roberts is putting on the court.
As its ninth term clicks into gear, the Roberts court has finally developed something like an identity of its own. It avoids highly activist conservative headlines that would drive Democrats to the polls. At the same time, behind a screen of legal complexity, it achieves significant conservative objectives.
The court’s health care decision is an obvious recent example: Roberts cast the deciding vote to uphold mandatory coverage, enraging conservatives and encouraging liberals. But by striking down the provision that pressured states to extend Medicaid, the court gutted the universal coverage that was the Affordable Care Act’s ethical ideal.
The regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions bids fair to produce a similarly confusing result. The court had been asked to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that upheld Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gases that are the Barack Obama administration’s most significant accomplishments for environmental protection. The court declined to review — and thus left in place — the regulations on motor-vehicle emissions. It also chose not to review the basic question of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Environmentalists cheered this result.
At the same time, however, the court agreed to review a single, wildly technical-sounding question: “Whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.” What this question asks in English, roughly speaking, is whether the EPA was allowed to issue emissions regulations governing factories and power plants under the authority of the law that lets it regulate cars and trucks. And what that means in practical terms is that the court could strike down the Obama EPA’s existing greenhouse-gas regulations for the nonmoving (“stationary”) polluters who create much of the pollution that drives global warming.
Behold the Roberts paradigm! Or don’t behold it: The hand is quicker than the eye. The headline allows environmental regulation to stand. The fine print suggests that the most important part of the existing regulations enacted by the Obama administration could be ditched.
And, remarkably enough, environmentalists are buying into the shell game as well. Some experts hastened to explain that, even if the Roberts court were to strike down the stationary-source regulations on the grounds that they were not authorized by laws permitting regulation of motor vehicles, there would still be other ways under the Clean Air Act to enact such rules. The court’s decision to hear the case, they implied, shouldn’t worry environmentalists too much.
The experts’ observation is technically correct but could prove too optimistic. The administration plans to enact different regulations covering coal-fired power plants, under different authority. But if the court were to strike down the existing stationary-source regulations in June 2014, significant uncertainty will result. The court’s reasoning, which cannot be foreseen, could potentially call into question other types of regulation. The litigation surrounding the planned regulations — and believe me, there’ll be litigation — will have to take into account the court’s reasoning, whatever it may be. The apparently narrow question to be addressed doesn’t guarantee a holding acoustically sealed off from regulations under different authority.
Coincidentally, the energy producers and manufacturers who make up the stationary-source polluters form a concentrated interest group. They will lobby to fight the new regulations, no doubt using the argument that greenhouse gases have already been significantly cut by regulating drivers. And, of course, drivers’ interests are more diffuse, so (surprise!) their lobbying power is weaker. They are, in short, perfect patsies to take the regulatory hit.
All this adds up to an extremely sophisticated strategy for the justices who agreed to take the case. Even if they strike down the regulations, they will be doing so on the highly technical basis that the EPA relied on the wrong source of authority. Environmentalists will focus the public’s attention on enacting new regulation, thereby distracting the public from blaming the court. The whole decision will look Solomonic — upholding a part of the regulations while striking down another part — rather than like pro-business activism. The court’s legitimacy will be preserved, even strengthened.
What makes this strategy hallmark John Roberts is how markedly it differs from the approaches of the court’s other conservatives. Justice Antonin Scalia, still the intellectual leader of the conservative wing into his increasingly cantankerous mid-70s, declares his broad principles of originalism and textualism and puts them into practice, most of the time consistently. His swashbuckling decisions and clever, incisive rhetoric leave you in no doubt where he stands. You can love him or hate him (I myself feel both emotions, usually simultaneously), but you always, always know where he stands. Justice Clarence Thomas is similarly out there, lauding the virtues of the 18th century. No one could call either of these justices crafty.
In their decades on the court — each having served with Chief Justice William Rehnquist — Scalia and Thomas never managed to achieve the conservative revolution that the Ronald Reagan era promised and the Federalist Society championed. Radical — and radically consistent — they couldn’t hold the center, frequently losing the votes of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy when the chips were down. Rehnquist, equally conservative but less openly ideological, couldn’t help. As men of principle, which judges are supposed to be, Scalia and Thomas might feel a perverse pride in never winning the big ones. As men of action, they have mostly failed.
Roberts is a horse of a different color. As a former law clerk to then-Justice Rehnquist, he decided to win, even at the cost of temporarily alienating his conservative elders. His legal craft is unmatched — because if you’re the Supreme Court, it’s much better to win while appearing to lose than to lose by insisting on looking as if you’ve won.
(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @NoahRFeldman.)
Photo: White House/Paul Morse via Wikimedia Commons