Supreme Court Should Tell Courts to Stay Out of Global Warming Cases

The Supreme Court is finally starting to put some interesting non-First Amendment cases on this term’s docket.

Today, the Court agreed to review American Electric Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut, in which eight states, some non-profits, and New York City are suing a number of energy companies and utilities for harms they allegedly caused by contributing to global warming.  This is the third major lawsuit to push global warming into the courts (another being Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, in which Cato also filed a brief).  It’s America, after all, where we sue to solve our problems – even apparently, taking to court the proverbial butterfly that caused a tsunami.

Mind you, you can sue your neighbor for leaking toxic water onto your land. Courts are well positioned to adjudicate such disputes because they involve only two parties and have limited (if any) effects on others. But it is a different case when, using the same legal theory by which Jones sues Smith for his toxic dumping (called “nuisance”), plaintiffs selectively sue a few targeted defendants for a (quite literally) global problem.  As I discussed with reference to a previous such case, global warming is the type of issue that should be decided by the political branches. The Second Circuit ruled, however, that this suit could go forward. (Justice Sotomayor was involved in the case at that stage and so will be recused going forward.)  

The Supreme Court has always recognized that not all problems can or should be solved in the courtroom. Thus, the issue in AEP v. Connecticut – which the Court will now decide – is whether the states meet the legal requirements necessary to have their suit heard in court, what lawyers call “standing.” Historically, issues of policy have been decided by the legislative and executive branches while “cases and controversies” have been decided by courts. Therefore, when litigants have asked courts determine matters of broad-ranging policy, the Court has often termed the cases “political questions” and dismissed them. The reasoning is that, not only do unelected courts lack the political authority to determine such questions, they also lack any meaningful standards by which the case could be decided (called “justiciability”).

Indeed, even if the plaintiffs can demonstrate causation, it is unconstitutional for courts to make complex policy decisions — and this is true regardless of the science regarding global warming. Just as it’s unconstitutional for a legislature to pass a statute punishing a particular person (bill of attainder), it’s unconstitutional — under the “political question doctrine” — for courts to determine wide-ranging policies in which numerous considerations must be weighed against each other in anything but a bilateral way.  

We pointed out in our brief supporting the defendants’ request for Supreme Court review – and will again in the brief we plan to file at this next stage – that resolving this case while avoiding those comprehensive and far-reaching implications is impossible and that the Constitution prohibits the judicial usurpation of roles assigned to the other, co-equal branches of government.   After all, global warming is a global problem purportedly caused by innumerable actors, ranging from cows to Camrys. This fact not only underscores the political nature of the question, but it has constitutional significance: In order to sue someone, your injury must be “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s actions. Suits based on “butterfly effect” reasoning should not be allowed to move forward.

Perhaps surprisingly, the federal government –which is involved because one of the defendants is the Tennessee Valley Authority – agrees with Cato . The administration aptly played its role in our constitutional system by asserting that global warming policy was a matter for the executive and legislative branches to resolve, not the judiciary. 

Hmmm, Cato and Obama on the same side in a global warming dispute… but I still won’t be holding my breath awaiting an invite to the White House Christmas party.