Big Global Warming Case Hinges on Weird Procedural Technicality

Nearly two weeks ago, I blogged about some strange procedural developments in the big global warming case coming out of the Gulf Coast, Comer v. Murphy Oil USA.  On the eve of final briefing deadlines before the en banc Fifth Circuit, an eighth judge of that court recused from the case (we don’t know the reason, but the previous seven recusals were presumably due to stock ownership) and so the court was faced with an unprecedented situation: losing an en banc quorum after previously having had enough of one to vacate the panel decision and grant en banc rehearing in the first place.  We were all set to file our brief when the Clerk of the Fifth Circuit issued an order notifying the parties of the lost quorum and canceling the scheduled hearing — and nothing more.  Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to go ahead with filing late last week.

Again, here’s the situation: Mississippi homeowners sued 34 energy companies and utilities operating in the Gulf Coast for damage sustained to their property during Hurricane Katrina. The homeowners alleged that the defendants had emitted greenhouse gases, which increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which contributed to global warming, which accelerated the melting of glaciers, which raised the global sea level, which increased the frequency and severity of hurricanes, which caused the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina. The district court concluded that it lacked the authority to resolve the public debate over global warming and dismissed the case. A Fifth Circuit panel reversed this dismissal, holding that the homeowners have standing to raise some of their claims and that those claims are appropriate for resolution by the federal courts. The Fifth Circuit then granted rehearing en banc.

Cato filed an amicus brief on the energy companies’ behalf, arguing that homeowners lack standing to bring their suit and that the case raises a nonjusticiable political question. Our brief asserts that the homeowners’ claim does not provide a clear causal connection between the harm suffered and any particular conduct by the energy companies, and that the money damages the homeowners requested would not remedy the environmental harm alleged. More importantly, we maintain that political questions such as those surrounding climate change must be resolved by Congress, not the federal courts. Put simply, the Constitution prohibits federal courts from resolving highly technical social and economic policy debates. Permitting plaintiffs to achieve “regulation by litigation” would not only contradict settled Supreme Court precedent, but would betray the separation of powers principles embodied in the Constitution.

The Clerk has since directed the parties to brief the procedural issues surrounding the apparent lost quorum, which letter-briefs came in this week (as a mere amicus, we did not file on this).  I’ll spare you the technical details, but there are three possible ways in which the Fifth Circuit could now rule: 1) the court actually does have a quorum and thus oral argument is resecheduled; 2) the panel decision is reinstated (with an ensuing cert petition appealing that decision to the Supreme Court); and 3) the district court is affirmed without opinion (the same result as when an appellate court vote is tied).  Stay tuned — this is a truly weird denouement to a hugely important case.