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Supreme Court Limits E.P.A.’s Ability to Restrict Power Plant Emissions

In contradiction, Judge Kagan wrote that the statute at issue in the case had given the agency sufficient powers. “The Clean Air Act was an important piece of legislation designed to address a major public policy issue,” she wrote, adding: “Congress knows what it’s not doing and cannot know when it’s drafting a statute. and Congress therefore empowers an expert agency to deal with problems — even major ones — as and when they arise.

She added that the agency was best suited to tackle climate change.

“This is not the Attorney General regulating medical care, or even the CDC regulating landlord-tenant relationships,” she wrote. “It’s EPA (that’s the Environmental Protection Agency, in case the majority forgot) acting to address the greatest environmental challenge of our time.”

The conservative majority of the Supreme Court is generally committed to textualism, a legal approach that focuses on the words of the law as written rather than the greater purpose or intentions of its drafters. Speaking at Harvard Law School in 2015, Justice Kagan said that textualism had triumphed across the ideological spectrum. “We’re all textualists now,” she said then.

But on Thursday, she wrote that “it seems like I was wrong.”

“The current court is textual only when it suits us,” she wrote. “If that method were to frustrate wider targets, special canons like the ‘main questions doctrine’ magically appear as textless cards.”

The case had an unusual history.

Last year, on the last full day of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, a federal appeals court in Washington rejected his administration’s plan to relax restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Trump administration said the Clean Air Act unequivocally limits the measures the agency could use to those “that can be put into service in a building, structure, facility or installation.”

A divided panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Trump administration’s plan, called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, was based on a “fundamental misconstruction” of the relevant law, through a “tortured series of misreadings.”

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