The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has sent shock waves throughout the political world, and environmental groups are no exception.
“The court must protect health care for millions, secure clean air and clean water for all, ensure action to tackle the climate crisis, take steps to guarantee the right to vote, and safeguard the very strength of our democracy,” Sierra Club Director Michael Brune said in a statement on Wednesday.
Kennedy has acted as a vital swing vote on a number of important environmental decisions in recent years, including 2007’s Massachusetts v. EPA. The court ordered the EPA to determine whether carbon and greenhouse gas emissions could endanger public health or the environment through warming. The agency’s subsequent finding in 2009 that a threat did indeed exist laid the groundwork for President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
The case also set two precedents: the first, that individual states can sue the federal government over pollution, and the second, that greenhouse gas emissions qualify as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
Kennedy has also weighed in on areas such as the Clean Water Act, helping to clarify which waters do or do not fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction – and providing a basis for another controversial Obama regulation, the Waters of the United States rule.
The fear that many environmental advocates are now voicing is that a more conservative Supreme Court Justice – as all of the 25 names on President Donald Trump’s short list are – would roll back some of those decisions.
“He’s been on the court just over 30 years, and he’s been in the majority in every single environmental case but one. You don’t win without Kennedy,” Harvard law professor Richard Lazarus told The Atlantic.
That could be damaging to the Earth’s climate, some environmentalists are claiming.
“If Trump succeeds in veering the Court in an even more extremist direction, it could open the door to runaway climate change,” Marcie Keever, legal director at Friends of the Earth, told the Washington Post.
Most don’t think that the Supreme Court is likely to overturn previous decisions, but a new justice could change how they rule on future cases.
“I am not sure whether they’d overturn. But I think at a minimum we can expect the Court without Justice Kennedy to look even more skeptically at EPA regulatory efforts,” Harvard law professor Jody Freeman told the Post.
By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer
Image credit: White House Photographic Office