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The Environmental Legacy of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019

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Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on May 29, 2012. MANDEL NGAN / AFP / GettyImages

John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion granting environmental agencies the power to regulate greenhouse gases, died Tuesday at the age of 99. His decision gave the U.S. government important legal tools for fighting the climate crisis.


"Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the great environmental heroes of the last century," Washington Gov. and climate-focused presidential candidate Jay Inslee wrote in a statement following his death. "His decisions formed the bedrock of America's environmental laws, and his impact on our environment will be felt for generations to come."

Stevens was appointed to the court by President Gerald Ford in 1975 and retired in 2010 at the age of 90, having served more than twice the average amount of time for a Supreme Court Justice, the Associated Press reported. He was characterized as moving from the center to the liberal wing of the court during his tenure, but Stevens himself thought that was inaccurate. In his view, the court had moved to the right while his positions had stayed roughly the same.

"I don't think of myself as a liberal at all," Stevens told The New York Times in 2007, as the Associated Press reported. "I think as part of my general politics, I'm pretty darn conservative."

However, Stevens did rule in favor of a number of positions considered liberal, including gay rights, abortion rights and gun control, according to Reuters. He also opposed key Bush administration policies. For example, he wrote the court's decision that detainees at Guantanamo Bay could challenge their incarceration in U.S. courts.

Another disagreement with the Bush administration marked perhaps the cornerstone of his environmental legacy. In Massachusetts v. EPA, he wrote the majority opinion arguing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had the authority to regulate auto emissions that contribute to climate change, The New York Times reported at the time. Further, he ruled that, if the agency chose not to regulate greenhouse gases, it would have to justify its decision with science.

The Bush administration has argued that the EPA lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act and that, even if it had the power, the Bush EPA would not choose to use it. Stevens disagreed.

"Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Act's capacious definition of 'air pollutant,' EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases from new motor vehicles," Stevens wrote.

His decision paved the way for key Obama-era policies, such as the first auto-emissions standards focused on limiting climate-changing emissions, Grist wrote in a reflection on his retirement in 2010.

Manhattan v. EPA wasn't his only significant environmental decision. Grist highlighted three others:

  1. Chevron v. NRDC: This 1984 decision was initially seen as a defeat for environmentalists because it said the DC Circuit could not override the Reagan EPA's decision to give more flexibility to companies in honoring their Clean Air Act obligations. However, it set an important precedent that the courts should defer to regulatory agencies when they act on a reasonable interpretation of a law.
  2. Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter Of Communities For A Great Oregon: In this 1995 case, Stevens reinstated the portion of the Endangered Species Act that protected the habitats of endangered species. It had been struck down based on a narrow interpretation by the DC Circuit, but Stevens argued that the intent of the law was clearly on the side of protecting habitats.
  3. Sierra Preservation Council v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: In this case, decided in 2002, Stevens wrote the majority opinion that upheld land use protections for Lake Tahoe. His ruling reversed the court's abuse of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to block environmental laws.

"Justice Stevens should be remembered as a great justice in environmental cases, not because he bent the law to favor environmental outcomes, but rather because he insisted that the law itself, which dictates environmental outcomes in many cases, be followed," Grist concluded.

Stevens died in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida following complications from a stroke he suffered on Monday, according to a Supreme Court statement reported by Reuters. He was remembered fondly by his former colleagues.

"He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the statement.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

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"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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