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Despite Today’s Ruling, The EPA Has A Pretty Good Record At The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court today delivered a blow to the Environmental Protection Agency and environmentalists across the country. The court struck down the agency’s regulations of certain power plant emissions, most notably mercury. The EPA enacted the regulations to curtail health risks created by the plants but didn’t consider the regulations’ costs to the industry along with the benefits to the public. In doing so, the court ruled, the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act was unreasonable.

This is a somewhat rare loss for the EPA at the Supreme Court. Using the Supreme Court Database, I found that 70 percent of cases in which the EPA was a party ended in an EPA victory — 21 out of 30, including the case decided today.

All of those cases are in the table below.

1972 EPA v. Mink Politician
1972 Fri v. Sierra Club Environmental
1974 Train v. City of New York City
1974 Train v. Campaign Clean Water Environmental
1974 Train v. NRDC Environmental
1975 Hancock v. Train State
1975 Union Electric v. EPA Electric
1975 Train v. Colorado PIRG Environmental
1975 EPA v. California State
1976 E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Train Chemical
1977 Adamo Wrecking v. U.S. Construction
1978 Mobay Chemical v. Costle Chemical
1979 Crown Simpson Pulp Co. v. Costle Logging
1979 Costle v. Pacific Legal Foundation City or town
1979 Harrison v. PPG Industries Chemical
1980 EPA v. National Crushed Stone Assoc. Mining
1982 Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club Environmental
1983 U.S. v. Stauffer Chemical Co. Chemical
1983 Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto Co. Chemical
1984 Thomas v. Union Carbide Chemical
2000 Whitman v. American Trucking Assoc. Trucking
2002 Borden Ranch v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Developer
2003 Alaska Dept. of Envt. Conservation v. EPA State agency
2006 Massachusetts v. EPA State
2006 National Assoc. of Homebuilders v. Defenders of Wildlife Environmental
2011 Sackett v. EPA Landlord
2012 L.A. County Flood Control v. NRDC County
2013 Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA Professional
2013 EPA v. EME Homer City Generation Environmental
2014 Michigan v. EPA Professional

Some of these have had sweeping environmental implications. For example, Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, decided in 2001, held that the EPA’s “broad standard-setting authority did not amount to an unconstitutional delegation by Congress of legislative power to an executive branch agency.” The full implications of today’s decision are not yet known.

The loss fits a pattern. As I wrote Friday, despite a few recent marquee victories, President Obama’s federal agencies have struggled to win at the court. In fact, Obama has the lowest “win percentage” of any president since at least Harry S. Truman. This is at least partially the result of Obama’s agencies — like the EPA — aggressively interpreting laws in an attempt to make up for an uncooperative Congress. This time, at least according to five justices, they went too far.


Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.