The Supreme Court recently struck down an Obama-era rule enacted by the EPA under the Clean Air Act (CAA), citing the “major issues doctrine” and finding that the agency’s statutory interpretation could not not be supported by “clear congressional authorization”.
In an effort to regulate power plant emissions, the EPA promulgated the Clean Power Plan (CPP) in 2015, citing a little-used CAA provision for authority. The rule was challenged and suspended by the Court in 2016, and the Trump administration repealed and replaced the rule in 2019, saying the CPP represented an overbroad reading of the CAA and exceeded the authority granted to the EPA by the Congress. Later, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (DC Circuit) overturned the CPP’s repeal and Trump-era replacement rule, but agreed to stay its ruling. rescind the repeal of the CPP.
As a preliminary issue, the Supreme Court found that states challenging the CPR had standing to do so – despite the rule’s repealed status and the EPA’s stated intention not to enforce the CPR – because the states had suffered reparable damage as a result of the judgment of the circuit CC below. Further, the Court held that since the EPA’s refusal to enforce the CPP amounted to “willful conduct” with no guarantee that the substance of the rule would not be reimposed later, the case should not be dismissed. as irrelevant.
In finding that the EPA exceeded its congressional authority to enact the CPP, the Court relied on a body of precedent for the proposition that, in “extraordinary cases” marked by their “economic and political importance”, traditional deference to an agency’s statutory interpretation must give way to hesitation and “skepticism” that Congress intended to confer the authority claimed. The Court referenced cases from “every corner of the administrative state,” including those related to the FDA’s regulation of tobacco products and the CDC’s imposition of a moratorium on evictions in nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. These cases, the Court explained, were decided under the “major issues doctrine,” although the doctrine was not explicitly named. The Court acknowledged that the agency in each case provided a “colourful textual basis” for its claim of legal authority, but ultimately noted that, in cases involving “major issues” such as those cited, the agency must offer “something more than merely a plausible textual basis for agency action” and must instead “indicate clear congressional authorization for the power it claims.”
By instituting the major issues doctrine, the Court hopes to avoid “a particular and recurring problem: agencies asserting highly consequential power beyond what Congress could reasonably be expected to have granted.” It remains to be seen to what extent the major issues doctrine can be applied to other organizations in the future.