More broadly, the court was asked to address whether Congress must “speak with particular clarity when it authorizes executive agencies to address major political and economic questions.” That theory is often referred to as the “major questions doctrine,” and it played a key role in Thursday’s decision.
Chief Justice Roberts, employing the phrase for the first time in a majority opinion, said it applied in cases of unusual significance and was meant to address “a particular and recurring problem: agencies asserting highly consequential power beyond what Congress could reasonably be understood to have granted.”
The provision of the Clean Air Act the Biden administration pointed to was too oblique, and so ran afoul of the major questions doctrine, the chief justice wrote.
Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion advanced a central goal of the conservative legal movement, that of curtailing the power of the administrative state. But it did so in a characteristically measured way.
In a full-throated 19-page concurring opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, joined by Justice Samuel Alito Jr., elaborated on what the chief justice had written.
“When Congress seems slow to solve problems, it may be only natural that those in the executive branch might seek to take matters into their own hands,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “But the Constitution does not authorize agencies to use pen-and-phone regulations as substitutes for laws passed by the people’s representatives.”
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.”