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The Barrett factor: Will President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee favor oil companies in a climate change lawsuit?

Next year, the court will decide whether oil companies will face lawsuits in state or federal courts

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, meets with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., not shown, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 30.
Sarah Silbiger, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump has nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Though a coronavirus surge among GOP senators has complicated the proceedings, Barrett’s confirmation is still expected. Her appointment would give the Supreme Court a 6-3 conservative majority that could shape rulings for decades.

In 2018, the city of Baltimore sued 26 companies over the costs of climate change, joining a surge of city and state governments taking similar action. They want their cases heard in state court, where they believe they have better odds; the companies prefer federal court. Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to determine how appeals courts decide where such climate change lawsuits are heard, according to The Washington Post.

The issue

  • Baltimore contends that fossil fuel companies such as BP, Citgo and ConocoPhillips violated Maryland state laws and withheld facts about climate change from the public. It is suing the companies to cover the costs from higher temperatures and rising sea levels, which particularly affect communities on the coasts.
  • The lawsuit alleges that oil and gas companies have known for decades that their products damage the climate and have “engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats.”
  • More than a dozen similar lawsuits have been filed by cities and states around the country, although several were quickly dismissed.
  • The companies have tried to move the cases from state court to the federal level, where they benefit from the precedent of deferring to the terms of the Clean Air Act.
  • According to The Washington Post, “the Supreme Court will consider how much leeway appeals courts get in deciding the best venue for the climate lawsuits from states and cities.”

Barrett’s perspective

Barrett’s short tenure as a federal judge hasn’t offered much insight into how she may rule in cases of legal jurisdiction. But her mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, built a reputation for being sympathetic to the autonomy of state and local governments. Barrett has contributed scholarly articles on the history of court jurisdiction to encyclopedias on judicial history and policy; this case will be an early indicator of where her own views lie.

The decision

In reviewing the Baltimore case, the Supreme Court will not be ruling on the culpability of oil companies, and any tangible effects of their decision will remain a long way off. But the case will impact whether climate issues, which are global by definition, can be properly tried on local levels. “Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the oil companies,” Dino Grandoni of The Washington Post writes, “it may make it harder for cities and states to secure victory in the climate cases.”

Key quote

“Congress has greatly expanded the power of the federal courts since the founding. At the same time, it has resisted giving federal courts the full scope of judicial power available under Article III. This resistance stems from a variety of factors, including respect for state courts, the need to allocate federal resources, and interbranch struggle over controversial judicial decision.” — Amy Coney Barrett in a 2016 article in the Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States