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A Relentless Power Grab: SCOTUS Poised to Weaken EPA and Other Federal Agencies in Upcoming Cases Relentless and Loper Bright

Jan 11, 2024

On the heels of major Supreme Court decisions to roll back EPA authority on climate and clean water, SCOTUS will hear a new pair of cases that could further gut the power of federal agencies: Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce and Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo.

These cases offer the court’s 6-3 MAGA supermajority another chance to hamstring federal agencies’ authority to protect the people from powerful special interests. Such a ruling would have sweeping implications for environmental law, and would extend to all other areas of public policy, including democracy, healthcare, reproductive rights, labor, immigration, education and more.

In this article:

The most important case you’ve never heard of: the Chevron Doctrine

On the surface, Relentless and Loper Bright are about who pays for required compliance monitors on commercial fishing boats. But at their core, the cases are a challenge to the Chevron doctrine, which comes from the landmark 1984 case Chevron v. NRDC. Right-wing lawyers are attempting to use these cases to upend Chevron so they can shift power from agency experts and elected officials to a Supreme Court captured by billionaires, corporations, and MAGA extremists.

Under the Chevron doctrine, if there is ambiguity in a federal statute administered by an expert agency (such as the way the EPA administers the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act), courts are supposed to defer to the agency’s reasonable interpretation of the statute. Simply put, in those situations, judges are supposed to defer to the experts on the subject matter and its implementation.

If SCOTUS rules in favor of the plaintiffs in Relentless and Loper Bright, it would overturn this critically important doctrine and further erode the statutory power Congress provides federal agencies (like the EPA) to implement the laws, transferring that power to the courts.

Chevron v. NRDC is likely the most important case you’ve never heard of. It has been cited in court decisions more than 18,000 times – more than Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade, and overturning it would have disastrous consequences for our environment and democracy.

Much more than environmental protection is at stake

In addition to further weakening the EPA and its authority to regulate polluters and protect our communities, our air, and our water, overturning Chevron would have far-reaching implications into all areas of public policy.

Federal regulatory agencies impact every aspect of our lives. Environment, democracy, healthcare (including reproductive rights), consumer protection, financial regulation, labor rights, gun violence prevention, antitrust laws, immigration, education, transportation, veterans affairs, and the justice system (to name a few) all rely on the same administrative law principles and precedent. If the Court takes power from agencies that have expertise in protecting our communities, it will negatively impact their ability to protect us from powerful special interests like the fossil fuel industry.

Overturning the Chevron doctrine would take power from the people

If SCOTUS overturns Chevron and further weakens federal regulatory agencies, right-wing justices would ultimately be stealing power from the people and taking it for themselves. Here’s how:

  1. When scientists and subject-matter experts at agencies are stripped of the deference afforded to them by Chevron to make tough calls where Congress has left ambiguity in their areas of expertise, power shifts from these experts and agencies to life-tenured judges and courts, especially the Supreme Court.
  2. Courts taking power from agencies also means they are taking power from the Congress that voters elected to create and authorize those agencies, and from the president who voters elected to oversee them.
  3. Diminishing the power of our elected leaders ultimately means stripping power from the voters who elected them, the people living in this country whose everyday lives are impacted by decisions made in these agencies— or, if Chevron is overturned, in the courts.
Illustration showing the Supreme Court building on a fishing boat, reeling in fish representing the power of the President, Congress, and voters.
On the surface, these cases are about compliance monitors on commercial fishing boats. But SCOTUS may use them to reel in power for the judiciary and away from Congress, the president and ultimately voters.

In attempting to overturn this bedrock doctrine, as they have already done with other legal precedent, MAGA justices are subverting democracy in order to increase their own power. Power that used to be held by the people becomes power to be wielded by the unelected (and in the case of SCOTUS, extreme) federal judges.

Because the MAGA justices have a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court and federal judges serve for life, they know that taking power for the Supreme Court means taking power for right-wing political interests over the long term– no matter who wins elections. The far right is expanding their own power to further serve special interests that have helped them capture the Supreme Court. And if Congress doesn’t act, they’ll keep that power for generations to come.

To see these special interests at work, look no further than Justice Clarence Thomas’ sudden change of heart. He used to support the Chevron doctrine, but now he wants it gone. So does the oil-funded Koch political network, which includes the lawyers for Relentless and Loper Bright Enterprises. Justice Thomas has extensive ties to the Kochs and their corrupting web of influence, including having spoken at network fundraisers.

Justice Thomas is not the only right-wing Supreme Court justice failing to recuse himself from environmental cases despite clear conflicts of interest. In addition to Thomas’ conflicts on Relentless and Loper Bright, Justice Samuel Alito is ruling on these and other environmental cases, even though his wife leases land to a big polluter for oil and gas extraction.This pattern of MAGA justices ruling on cases in which they have personal conflicts of interest–conflicts often tied to right-wing political groups–is indicative of the wider corruption in this Court.

SCOTUS is already stripping away federal agencies’ power to protect the people

While the upcoming Relentless and Loper Bright cases could have disastrous impacts on their own, the problem is bigger than any one case. The six right-wing justices on the Court have already established a pattern of manipulating the law to serve their own policy preferences and the interests of their benefactors.

Over the last two years, SCOTUS has made major decisions that significantly weakened the EPA’s power to regulate air and water pollution that threatens the health of our communities — especially communities already facing the greatest impacts from the climate crisis. These include:

  • West Virginia v. EPA: In June 2022, SCOTUS issued a ruling that weakened EPA authority to regulate climate pollution from power plants under the Clean Air Act. The decision was based on the vague, arbitrary “major questions doctrine,” which right-wing justices recently invented to empower themselves to second-guess federal agencies on significant policy questions.
  • Sackett v. EPA: In May 2023, SCOTUS stripped Clean Water Act protections for most of the wetlands in the United States, tying the EPA’s hands and imperiling the safety of our drinking water.

Justice Elena Kagan dissented in both cases, even using the same phrase in each of her written dissents: “[T]he Court substitutes its own ideas about policymaking for Congress’s. The Court will not allow the Clean [Air/Water] Act to work as Congress instructed. The Court, rather than Congress, will decide how much regulation is too much.”

What can I do? Join the call to reform and expand SCOTUS

These extremist MAGA Supreme Court Justices have repeatedly shown their disregard for the law and for our democracy. They have struck down core voting rights protections, opened the floodgates to corporate money in politics, and repeatedly upheld gerrymandering and voter suppression–in addition to their repeated attacks on climate, clean air, and clean water.

To protect the people, our planet, and our democracy, to preserve the integrity of our institutions, and to stop MAGA justices on SCOTUS from continuing to steal power from our elected leaders, our people, and our communities, we must urge Congress to expand and reform the court.

Here’s how you can take action today:

  • Support expanding and rebalancing the Supreme Court via the Judiciary Act.
  • Support the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act to stop the nation’s highest court from operating with the lowest standard of ethics.
  • Support pro-environment, pro-democracy judicial nominees for every vacancy on the federal bench.

Send a message to Congress now: we must expand the Supreme Court, shore up its ethical standards, and confirm pro-environment, pro-democracy judges.

Take Action Today

Tell Congress: Rein in the Supreme Court

Extremist MAGA justices on the Supreme Court have severely limited the federal government’s ability to regulate climate pollution from power plants, stripped Clean Water Act protections from most wetlands, and overturned Roe v. Wade. Now, they’re looking to overturn a bedrock doctrine of the American legal system in order to increase their own power. To protect the people, our planet, and our democracy, we must urge Congress to expand the Supreme Court, shore up its ethical standards, and confirm pro-environment, pro-democracy judges.

Send a Message to Congress
Closeup of the US Supreme Court.