The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA severely limited the EPA’s ability to fight climate change. Naturally, the decision has made headlines. It comes as scientists continue to warn us that we are racing toward a global climate crisis. The decision undercuts the government’s ability to address these environmental changes. However, it also does more than that.
The decision damages every single federal agency’s ability to serve as a regulatory body. As Government Executive notes, the decision now forces every agency to follow the “major questions doctrine.”
What is the major questions doctrine?
Prior to West Virginia v. EPA, the major questions doctrine existed as a concept, but not as language in a Supreme Court decision. This means the decision is the first to define the concept.
The Congressional Research Service outlined the doctrine’s basics in a report dated April 6, 2022. As that report notes:
- Many federal agencies have regulatory authority
- Their authority comes from the laws passed by Congress
- The major questions doctrine states that agencies cannot overstep the authority it gains from these laws
- Specifically, the language of the law must clearly give agencies the specific authority to make any changes with sweeping “economic and political significance”
As a ProPublica article points out, there are multiple concerns about the Supreme Court’s decision to invoke the major questions doctrine. The first is that agencies have long derived their authority from deliberately open-ended laws. Now, that open-endedness may serve as an unwanted obstacle. The second concern is that the decision appears to leave the doctrine somewhat undefined.
Chief Justice Roberts offers one standard for when the doctrine applies. Justice Gorsuch appears to offer a slightly different one.
How does the major questions doctrine affect federal employees?
Many federal agencies enforce a range of regulations. These typically exist to protect the public, as well as our air, water and resources. With its decision in West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court offers ammunition to those who want to challenge federal regulations.
This may not affect your daily routines, at least not right away. However, the decision will likely lead many agencies to review their policies. No one knows exactly how many changes will result from these reviews, but it seems safe to say that changes are coming. The Supreme Court has turned the tides, and the federal government now appears headed toward greater deregulation.