West Virginia v. EPA: SCOTUS gives its imprimatur to the “major questions” doctrine, shaking up the “administrative state”
West Virginia v EPA, the next-to-final decision handed down by SCOTUS this term, is a significant decision regarding a rule that the EPA said was never even in effect, that it had no intention of enforcing and that it planned to later replace with a new still-to-be-developed rule. As the NYT phrased it, “it’s a case about a regulation that doesn’t exist.” (Sort of like an episode of Seinfeld—the show about nothing—except that it’s not the least bit funny.) So SCOTUS could have stopped right there, but the Court forged ahead—an indicator by itself—with a decision that is nevertheless shaking up administrative law and the extent of rulemaking authority that federal agencies have—or thought they had. Its impact will likely be felt, not just at the EPA, but also at many other agencies, including the SEC. Of course, the conservative members of the Court have long signaled their desire to rein in the dreaded “administrative state.” (See, for example, the dissent of Chief Justice John Roberts in City of Arlington v. FCC back in 2013, where he worried that “the danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state cannot be dismissed.”) With this new decision by the Chief Justice (joined by five other justices), that desire has now been sated—for a while at least. In the majority opinion, SCOTUS declared that this case “is a major questions case,” referring to a judicially created doctrine holding that courts must be “skeptical” of agency efforts to assert broad authority to regulate matters of “vast economic and political significance,” requiring, in those instances, that the agency “point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ to regulate.’” In addition to the blow that the decision deals to climate regulation—“Court Decision Leaves Biden With Few Tools to Combat Climate Change,” is one of the headlines from the NYT—we can now expect the major questions doctrine to be brandished regularly against significant agency regulations across the board, and, with Congress perpetually at loggerheads and limited in its ability to authorize much of anything these days, it could well stymie much agency rulemaking. Does anyone question that, with SCOTUS’s new imprimatur, the doctrine will be raised in anticipated litigation against whatever version of the SEC’s climate disclosure regulation is adopted? As reported by Reuters, when asked by Bloomberg TV on Thursday about the impact of the decision on other agencies, Senator Patrick Toomey “singled out the SEC rule,” claiming that the SEC is “attempting to impose this whole climate change disclosure regime…with no authority from Congress to do that.” To better understand the major questions doctrine, it may be useful to take a closer look at the case.