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Supreme Court Limits E.P.A.’s Ability to Restrict Power Plant Emissions

In dissent, Justice Kagan wrote that the statute at issue in the case had given the agency ample authority. “The Clean Air Act was major legislation, designed to deal with a major public policy issue,” she wrote, adding: “Congress knows what it doesn’t and can’t know when it drafts a statute; and Congress therefore gives an expert agency the power to address issues — even significant ones — as and when they arise.”

She added that the agency was best suited to take on climate change.

“This is not the attorney general regulating medical care, or even the C.D.C. regulating landlord-tenant relations,” she wrote. “It is E.P.A. (that’s the Environmental Protection Agency, in case the majority forgot) acting to address the greatest environmental challenge of our time.”

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority is generally committed to textualism, a judicial approach that focuses on the words of the law as written rather than its larger purpose or the intentions of its drafters. In a 2015 appearance at Harvard Law School, Justice Kagan said that textualism had triumphed across the ideological spectrum. “We’re all textualists now,” she said then.

But on Thursday, she wrote that “it seems I was wrong.”

“The current court is textualist only when being so suits it,” she wrote. “When that method would frustrate broader goals, special canons like the ‘major questions doctrine’ magically appear as get-out-of-text-free cards.”

The case had an unusual history.

Last year, on the last full day of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, a federal appeals court in Washington struck down his administration’s plan to relax restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Trump administration said the Clean Air Act unambiguously limited the measures the agency could use to those “that can be put into operation at a building, structure, facility or installation.”

A divided three-judge panel of the court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruled that the Trump administration’s plan, called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, was based on a “fundamental misconstruction” of the relevant law, prompted by a “tortured series of misreadings.”

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