What Does It Take to “Displace” Federal Common Law? The States Have Their Say

Last month, in discussing the Administration’s brief in the American Electric Power case, I praised the nuanced and persuasive approach that the Administration took in seeking reversal of the 2nd Circuit opinion allowing the states’ public nuisance climate litigation to go forward. The states seeking to prosecute the law suit have now filed their brief and it turns out that they also do nuance. I still think that the Supreme Court will reverse, however.

I’m not going to get into the standing issue. I don’t believe that the states should have standing, but it’s not obvious, given the result in Massachusetts v. EPA, that the Supreme Court will agree.

I find the displacement issue more interesting. The 2nd Circuit held that the Clean Air Act had not displaced federal common law, because EPA wasn’t actually regulating GHG. Of course, EPA has reversed course and, at least until the GOP in the House has its way, it does now regulate GHG under the CAA. As a result, as the Administration put it in its brief:

Although EPA has not yet done precisely what plaintiffs demand here…, that is not the relevant test. … The question is whether the field has been occupied, not whether it has been occupied in a particular manner.

The plaintiff states disagree. In what is probably a shrewd concession, the states acknowledge that, were EPA to issue new source performance standards for GHG, such standards would displace federal common law, because, while they would not directly subject existing facilities to controls, they would lead to follow-on regulation by EPA requiring states to impose GHG standards on existing plants. Until existing plants are regulated, according to the states, common law has not been displaced. Thus, the states argue, the Supreme Court should either affirm the 2nd Circuit or simply dismiss the appeal – the states further acknowledge that, on remand, the District Court could reasonably stay the nuisance case to see if EPA in fact issues NSPS for GHG.

Shrewd and nuanced, but I’m still not buying it. I think that once EPA’s GHG regulatory program came into effect, federal common law was displaced. Of course, I don’t get a vote, so we’ll have to wait for the Supreme Court to decide the case.

One thought on “What Does It Take to “Displace” Federal Common Law? The States Have Their Say

  1. The way I see it, if the GOP are successful, they will legislate Mass v. EPA away, and the whole GHG displacement issue will be moot, bringing back public/private nuisance suits.
    Instead, the issue is whether the Supreme Court should deny cert, thereby affirming the 2nd Circuit, or whether to grant cert, which may run the risk of being an advisory opinion; or they’ll get rid of it as improvidently granted if the status quo changes.

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