The Supreme Court Really Means It: Injunctions Are Not Automatic Under NEPA

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, the big NEPA case before the Court this term. The District Court had struck down the decision by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to completely deregulate roundup ready alfalfa (RRA). That decision was not actually under appeal. The appeal concerned only the scope of the injunction issued by the District Court, which precluded APHIS from issuing any kind of deregulation decision without completing an Environmental Impact Report (EIS) and similarly issued a nationwide injunction against planting of RRA alfalfa prior to completion of an EIS. The District Court decision had been upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court reversed, and vacated the injunction. I’ve got to say, Supreme Court decisions in environmental cases have often puzzled me in recent years, but it is difficult to read this one and not feel its inevitability and obviousness. This case really shouldn’t be news. The Court decided in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council (the Navy sonar training case) that the standard for injunctions in NEPA cases is not any different from that in any other case. In other words, injunctions are not automatic – or even presumed – in NEPA cases. Instead, the party seeking the injunction must satisfy the traditional four-factor test in order to obtain relief.

In Monsanto, the Court simply put the final nail in the coffin of the idea NEPA is somehow different. Citing to cases suggesting that the standard may be more lenient under NEPA, the Court yesterday said that:

The statements quoted above appear to presume that an injunction is the proper remedy for a NEPA violation except in unusual circumstances. No such thumb on the scales is warranted. … It is not enough for a court considering a request for injunctive relief to ask whether there is a good reason why an injunction should not issue; rather, a court must determine that an injunction should issue under the traditional four-factor test….

Here, the Court concluded that an injunction prohibiting even partial deregulation of RRA was overbroad. Moreover, because no one challenged the District Court decision striking down APHIS’s original deregulation decision, those opposing use of RRA will have another opportunity to go to court and seek an injunction in the future, should APHIS again try to deregulate RRA without having first complied with NEPA.

The lesson? If you want an injunction for a NEPA violation, you better be able to demonstrate that the balance of equities and the public interest are on your side.

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