U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Bars Federal Nuisance Suit by Plaintiffs Seeking to Curb Global Warming


Corrected: The U.S. Supreme Court has barred a federal suit that seeks to fight global warming through the common law tort of public nuisance.

The plaintiffs, including eight states and New York City, had sued four private power companies and the federal Tennessee Valley Authority in an effort to get them to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In an 8-0 opinion, the Supreme Court found that any common-law right of action was displaced by the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to set greenhouse gas emission standards.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the unanimous opinion (PDF). When Congress directly addresses a question previously governed by federal common law, the need for any exercise of law-making by the federal courts disappears, she said. In this case, “we see no need for a parallel track” of litigation.

The federal EPA is “best suited to serve as primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions,” Ginsburg said. “The expert agency is surely better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case injunctions.”

The EPA plans to issue a proposed rule regulating emissions of fossil-fuel-fired power plants by July. Federal courts do have the power to review agency action to ensure compliance with federal law, Ginsburg said, and the plaintiffs could file suit if they are dissatisfied with the rule-making. They will also get a chance on remand to argue they can sue based on state common law. The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t rule on the pre-emption issues raised by a state suit because it allowed the federal cause of action.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not participate in the case. The court was split 4-4 on whether the plaintiffs had standing, which had the effect of affirming a 2nd Circuit decision allowing a hearing on their claims.

The case is American Electric Power v. Connecticut.

Story corrected on June 21 to say that the suit targets carbon dioxide emissions.

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