In Review: SCOTUS Environmental and Administrative Decisions in the 2020 Term


Several decisions of interest were issued in the 2020 term, which stretched from October 2020 until early July 2021. This review will concentrate on environmental and administrative law cases.

Texas v. New Mexico
On December 14, 2020, the Court issued its ruling in an Original Action. Water is precious in the Pecos River Valley, and the distribution of water is governed by the Pecos River Compact. Here, Texas complained that New Mexico illegally was seeking delivery credits for evaporated water credits but the Court agreed that New Mexico was entitled to these credits under the provisions of the River Master’s Manual.

Florida v. Georgia
On April 1, 2021, in another waters right ruling on an Original Action filed in the Supreme Court, the Court rejected Florida’s claims that Georgia’s use of interstate waters harmed Florida’s businesses. Florida had to satisfy a heavy burden of proof, which it failed to do.

Salinas v. the United States Railroad Retirement Board
On February 3, 2021, the Court resolved a circuit split and reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In doing so, the Court held that the Fifth Circuit had jurisdiction to review a decision of the Board that rejected the petitioner’s request that the Board reopen a prior benefits decision; the Board’s ruling was a final action which triggered the APA right to judicial review.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club
On March 4, 2021, the Court decided this Endangered Species Act case. The Sierra Club filed an FOIA lawsuit seeking the Service’s preliminary staff biological opinions related to an EPA proposed Clean Water Act cooling water intake rule, which could have an impact on endangered and threatened species. The Court ruled that these “predecisional” draft opinions were entitled to the FOIA’s deliberative process exclusion.

Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project
On April 1, 2021, the Court decided this case, which involved the Commission’s radio-television cross ownership rules. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has had jurisdiction over appeals of the Commission’s attempts to revise and liberalize these rules, and has struck them down. Here, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’ latest rejection of these rules, holding that the Commission’s action satisfied the Administrative Procedure Act.

AMG Capital Management LLC v. Federal Trade Commission
On April 22, 2021, the Court held that the FTC did not have the statutory authority under the Federal Trade Commission Act to order equitable monetary relief by ordering monetary disgorgement or restitution. The Commission had utilized this enforcement tool for many years.

Carr, et al. v. Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
On April 23, 2021, the Court examined the status of Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), holding that the constitutional status of these judges (under the Constitution’s Appointment’s Clause) could be challenged in court by the petitioners without first exhausting their administrative remedies.

BP plc v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore
On May 17, 2021, the Court issued its decision in this climate change litigation case. The respondents sued BP and other energy companies in state court, alleging that the petitioners had promoted and sold petroleum products in Baltimore while knowing that the use of these products can cause climate change. The petitioners attempted to remove this case to federal court, but the U.S. District Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this attempt, with the appeals court holding that the federal removal statute deprived it of jurisdiction. Reversing the Fourth Circuit, the Court held that under the terms of the removal statute, the appeals court had jurisdiction to review all of the petitioner’s grounds for removal. However, the Court declined the invitation to rule on the merits of the petitioners’ contention.

Guam v. United States
On May 24, 2021, the Court decided this Superfund case. For many years, the U.S. Navy operated a large municipal solid waste disposal facility in Guam, which experienced significant environmental problems. When the Navy left Guam, the responsibility to operate this facility fell to the Government of Guam, which early on entered into a cleanup settlement with EPA pursuant to the Clean Water Act. Later, EPA placed the facility on Superfund’s National Priorities List of the National Contingency Plan, thereby forcing the Government of Guam to cope with a new and very large financial obligation. Guam sued the U.S. Navy under the Superfund law, but the Navy argued that the prior settlement with EPA triggered Superfund’s applicable statute of limitations, which had expired and required the dismissal of this action. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed this was the law, but the Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the DC Circuit, holding that the Clean Water Act settlement had no effect on the separate Superfund cause of action.

California v. Texas
On June 17, 2021, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit, which held that Texas and other states were authorized to challenge the revised Affordable Care Act that had nullified the taxable consequences of not purchasing ACA insurance. The Court held, in a 7-to-2 vote, that the states lacked standing to prosecute this litigation because they could not show how they had been harmed.

Nestle USA v. Doe
Also on June 17, the Court decided another Alien Tort Statute (ATS) case. The six plaintiffs alleged that they had been child slaves working on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, and since the American-based defendant corporations allegedly took actions in the United States affecting their Ivory Coast activities, there was jurisdiction under the ATS to prosecute this action in American courts. The Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, holding that this result was required by several recent decisions of the Court regarding the scope of the ATS.

United States v. Arthrex
On June 21, 2021, the Court decided a patent law matter in which the constitutional status of Administrative Patent judges, another kind of Administrative Law Judge, was reviewed. The case was decided on a 5-to-4 vote, with the Court majority holding that the status of these administrative law judges, whose authority to adjudicate patents is very powerful, is exposed to constitutional challenges under the Constitution’s Appointment Clause because they are not subject to Senatorial confirmation and also very little in the way of executive oversight. However, the appropriate remedy was a limited remand to the Acting Director to exercise the needed oversight.

Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid
On June 23, 2021, this important regulatory takings case was decided. The Court held that a California law which granted a labor organizer the right to have substantial access to an employer’s private property to conduct unionization activities was a “per se” taking under the Constitution’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Holly Frontier Cheyenne Refining v. Renewable Fuels Association
On June 25, 2021, in a complex statutory construction case, the Court reversed the Tenth Circuit, which had held that a small refinery’s failure to renew its request for the small refiner’s exemption from the EPA’s Renewable Fuel program made it ineligible to receive further exemptions from EPA. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the Court held that this result was inconsistent with the text of the statute.

PennEast Pipeline v. New Jersey
Our final case was decided on June 29, 2021. PennEast received a FERC pipeline certificate which authorized it to exercise powers of eminent domain under Section 717(h) of the Natural Gas Act to condemn all necessary right-of-way in New Jersey, whether the property was owned by private parties or the State of New Jersey. The Third Circuit held that the pipeline could not, consistent with the Constitution, exercise the power of eminent domain against any property owned by the state of New Jersey or in which it had an interest. However, the Supreme Court majority held that the federal government has long had this power, and there is no reason why Congress could not have amended the Act in 1947 to convey this power to private parties over which it has regulatory jurisdiction.


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