SCOTUS applies major questions doctrine to limit agency authority

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 30, 2022, invoked the major questions doctrine in a decision that limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could limit the efforts of other federal agencies to engage in broad policymaking not specifically authorized by Congress.

The case concerned whether Congress had delegated regulatory power to the EPA concerning greenhouse gas emissions. The court found that nowhere in the Clean Air Act had Congress granted the EPA specific authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, the agency had overstepped its authority when it attempted to enact such a regulatory scheme under the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

The court’s decision centered on the major questions doctrine—a principle of judicial review that requires Congress to speak clearly when it delegates regulatory authority to agencies on questions of political or economic significance. As Chief Justice John Roberts stated in the majority opinion, the major questions doctrine “took hold because it refers to an identifiable body of law that has developed over a series of significant cases all addressing a particular and recurring problem: agencies asserting highly consequential power beyond what Congress could reasonably be understood to have granted. Scholars and jurists have recognized the common threads between those decisions. So have we.”

Justice Elena Kagan issued a dissenting opinion, arguing that the majority ruling prevents the EPA from taking congressionally authorized action. “The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy,” wrote Kagan. “I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

SCOTUSblog analyst Amy Howe described what she and other scholars consider to be the significance of the ruling, claiming that Robert’s opinion “likely will have ripple effects far beyond the EPA. His reasoning applies to any major policymaking effort by federal agencies.”

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