The U.S. Supreme Court is getting set to hear the challenge to a federal court of appeals decision allowing several states to pursue a public nuisance suit against various utilities for their alleged greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10). Last week the federal government weighed in and asked the Court to overturn the Second Circuit's decision in this public nuisance suit against American Electric Power Co. and other utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions, but on relatively narrow grounds. The brief filed by the Acting Solicitor General argues that the plaintiffs lacked “prudential standing” and that their suit should therefore be dismissed. One central issue in the case is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court. Should a single judge set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country — or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue? Judges in subsequent cases could set different standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities. A second issue is whether controlling power plant emissions' alleged effects on the climate is a political question beyond the reach of the courts. The government's current position is that if plaintiffs' overall theory is correct, that means that virtually every person, organization, company, or government across the globe emits greenhouse gases, and also virtually every one of them will sustain climate-change-related injuries. Principles of prudential standing do not permit courts to adjudicate such generalized grievances absent specific statutory authorization, said the SG.
This topic will be featured at the breakout session for the Mass Torts & Class Actions SLG at this year's DRI Product Liability Conference in New Orleans. We'd be interested to hear you reaction to the briefs, including the papers from amici. DRI's amicus brief stresses to the Supreme Court that it should reverse the Second Circuit's decision in order to bring fairness, consistency and predictability to public nuisance litigation seeking to redress alleged climate change injuries. Although DRI acknowledges in its brief that the respondents' goal of reducing the threat of possible global climate change is laudable, pursuing a federal common law public nuisance action against a handful of arbitrarily selected energy-generating targets is an improper use of the courts in achieving that end.