What Does Justice Scalia’s Death Mean for Environmental Justice?

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By Dylan Lenzen

Nobody can deny that Justice Antonin Scalia was an immensely important figure asd most certainly left his mark on law in America. With his sudden death over a week ago now, I feel great sympathy for his family, friends, and colleagues mourning his loss. With that said, Scalia’s passing and the decision over his replacement will likely have enormous implications for the environment and, perhaps most immediately, climate justice.

While Scalia has offered positive opinions in regards to some cases with environmental justice implications in the past, his legacy towards the environment is most definitely a negative one. The justice regularly offered opinions in favor of property rights over the protection of human lives and the environment.

In multiple cases, he has voted against the EPA’s ability to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants. Just this summer, he wrote the majority opinion in a case that prevented the EPA from enacting important protections against mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants.

But perhaps most significant, just days before his passing, Scalia was a part of a 5-4 majority that issued a stay, preventing the implementation of the new Clean Power Plan for the time being. Under the plan states would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030. This plan also played an important role in helping the U.S. achieve an agreement at the Paris climate talks. Without such a plan ensuring U.S. emission reductions, there is little reason to believe that other countries will achieve their own commitments.

With Scalia on the Supreme Court, it appeared highly doubtful the Clean Power Plan would ever be implemented. With his passing, this projection changes instantly, providing hope for achieving climate justice.

In the short-term, the decision on the future of this important plan will rest in the hands of the D.C. Circuit court, which is likely to uphold the plan. Next, it would require a majority vote from the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling of the D.C. Circuit court, but with the court now tied at 4-4, this appears unlikely. So, until a new justice is appointed, either by Obama or the next President, should Congressional Republicans get their way, the future of the Clean Power Plan appears secure.

Ultimately, the newest Supreme Court justice is will have serious implications for climate justice in the long-term. Given the recent Republicans in the Senate over Obama’s intention to appoint a new justice, the process could be a long one, and may rest in the hands of the next president.