Too many people judge Supreme Court actions on whether they agree with the outcome, without reference to how the Court said it reached that outcome. Many who cheered when the Court kept the Trump administration from asking citizenship questions on the census cannot be happy with the recent decision respecting vaccination mandates and may be even more unhappy when the Court resolves three challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations on power plant energy production.
This Supreme Court appears to be chipping away at the behemoth Administrative State and the EPA’s regulations on greenhouse gas regulations may be next on the chopping block. That’s the view of Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy and I think he has a valid claim.
Not so fast, OSHA.
Adler’s thesis begins with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s emergency regulation which mandated that all private employers with one hundred employees require its employees to be vaccinated against Covid or undergo repeated weekly testing for the virus. The Court ruled that this exceeded the agency’s grant by Congress to protect the health of workers in their place of employment The Court made clear that without a clear congressional mandate the agency was never given congressional authority to make such “ a significant encroachment into the lives—and health—of a vast number of employees.”
There is a hint in Chief Justice Roberts and several other members of the court that they believed that the regulation was a pretextual effort to increase Covid vaccinations, and not a workplace safety move. And the scope of OSHA’s mandate is, after all, simply and exclusively workplace safety. The notion that regulations might be held invalid because they were pretextual even if the agency could provide a reasonable justification for them, was signaled in an earlier case involving the right of the Trump administration to reinstate a citizenship question in the census:
[T]he Chief Justice's decision to prop open the door to consider pretext invites litigants challenging agency actions to search for evidence -- whether or not in the official record -- to show that they, too, have been the subject of an unlawfully pretextual agency action. There is nothing in the Chief Justice's opinion that suggests this analysis is to be confined to those contexts in which the distribution of political power or other particularly weighty concerns are at stake, and there is much language in his opinion... that could find a ready home in legal challenges against HHS, the Education Department, or the EPA.
This is a departure from the usual view on judicial review . Normally, if the regulators can provide a reasonable justification and the regulation aligns with the statutory mandate, courts will not interfere. It also justifies court consideration of matters outside the text of the regulations itself. In sum, it presaged the OSHA case where the White House chief of staff Ron Klain retweeted that this regulation was a “work around” to increase the number of people vaccinated when there was no authority for an executive order compelling it.
Other evidence of the pretextual nature of the vaccine mandate regulations is found in its own language--the deciding factor for coverage was the number of employees and not the workplace conditions. So, for example if all those one hundred employees were working from home they were covered by the mandate, but if a ninety nine- employee shop involved people working close together in poorly ventilated settings they were not. Seems fairly obviously irrational, doesn’t it?
Block that pretext!
The left may have cheered the census case outcome -- the Supreme Court remanded the issue back to the lower courts and in so doing delayed inclusion of the question in the census-- but it may come back to bite them as coming up on the docket is a case involving the EPA and its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
This case comes up on several writs of certiorari to the court, challenging a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia which held that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Then President Trump rescinded the Obama Administrations Clean Power Plan (CPP) and adopted an Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) in its place. The D.C. court concluded that the Trump Administration's recision was arbitrary and capricious, though it did not compel a reinstatement of the CPP, and the EPA still has not come up with new regulations. In the face of the Supreme Court trend to clip administrative agency wings the EPA is in limbo presently. It has no idea how far the new regulations may sweep.
The three cases upon which the Court granted certiorari broadly question EPA’s authority -- does the Clean Air Act have any limits? What are these administrative boundaries? For example, can the agency ignore cost of compliance, the power of states to set performance standards, reshape the nation’s electricity grid? These, among others, are the questions raised by the three petitioners.
However the Court decides, it is likely to be the most important environmental (and energy) decision cases in the court’s history. And it seems to follow on a partisan attack on the revival of an apparently unrelated citizenship question in the census. On such things does the course of history turn.