The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked enforcement of the Obama administration's ambitious new plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The justices granted a plea from 30 states that asked for a temporary hold on the new Clean Energy Plan while the lower courts decide whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority to impose it.
Much of the political world was focused late yesterday on the New Hampshire presidential primaries, and for good reason: the nation's future direction will be shaped in large part by who wins the White House.
But away from the Granite State, Americans received a very different kind of reminder about what's actually at stake in 2016. NBC News' Pete Williams reported:
This was ... wait for it ... a 5-4 decision. The court's Republican-appointed conservatives -- Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts -- agreed to block the energy policy, while the court's Democratic-appointed center-left justices -- Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented.
A New York Times report noted that there is no precedent for the high court taking a step like this: the Supreme Court "had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court." Jody Freeman, a Harvard law professor and former environmental legal counsel to the Obama administration, described the move as "stunning."
To appreciate why, let's pause for a moment to consider how we reached this point.
As regular readers may recall, in June 2014, President Obama unveiled an ambitious plan to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants, setting reduced emissions limits. Under the plan, the White House offered states some flexibility in how they reach the target: the Obama administration was less concerned with how states cut carbon pollution and more concerned with the end goal. How states got there was up to them.
A total of 27 states balked, saying they not only want to ignore the crisis, but they also believed the Obama administration lacked the authority to impose these requirements. The White House pointed to the Clean Air Act, approved by Congress, to insist the authority most certainly exists.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- generally considered the nation's second highest court -- has agreed to hear the case, but it left the policy in place as the legal proceedings continued. Yesterday, five Supreme Court justices intervened -- for the first time in American history -- to block the implementation of the policy before the appeals court even hears arguments in the case.
Vox's Brad Plumer added, "This isn't a fatal blow for Obama's climate rule, but it's not a great sign. It suggests that five justices on the Supreme Court have some serious doubts about the Clean Power Plan."
In the meantime, the court's conservative majority offered a powerful and timely reminder to voters about what's on the line in the 2016 election. Readers are going to get tired of seeing me write this, but three current justices will be at least 80 by Inauguration Day 2017. Ginsburg will be 83. A fourth, Breyer, will be 78. The average retirement age: 78.7.
New York's Jon Chait said yesterday's Supreme Court order helped illustrate "the enormity of the stakes in November. Democrats need to hold on to the White House or literally risk planetary disaster."