Supreme Court rulings check presidential power

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Gina McCarthy
Gina McCarthy, the current head of the EPA, is shown here preparing documents for the EPA’s recently announced Clean Power Plan. The proposal looks to significantly cut carbon pollution from existing power plants, with a goal of 30% reductions by 2030.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), which is the highest court in the nation, made two major rulings this week that dialed back the power of the president and his agencies. First, it ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may continue limiting the pollution levels of power plants and other big sources of toxic greenhouse gases, but that it went beyond its authority when it tried to require permits from new or modified industrial facilities. Then, SCOTUS ruled that the president cannot appoint people to major government posts that normally require approval from the Senate, without the Senate’s approval.

See, the USA’s state and federal (national) government is balanced by a separation of powers into three main branches – the lawmaking “legislative” branch of elected representatives, the law enforcing “executive” branch, and the law evaluating “judicial” branch. At the highest level of government, the legislative branch is formed by the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress, the executive branch is formed by the President and his agencies (like the EPA), and the judicial branch is formed by the nine justices (judges) in SCOTUS, each of whom serve for life once appointed by the President and approved by Congress.

Since the EPA is under the executive branch, it can only carry out laws created by the legislative branch, which is why SCOTUS stepped in as the judicial branch to balance a recent conflict between the two powers. If the EPA doesn’t enforce pollution limits, then the environment and human health can be negatively impacted, but if they regulate too much or go beyond the current law, then businesses and their employees may lose a lot of money.

NOAA temperature
The extreme heat in May affected many areas around the world.

Greenhouse gas emissions, which are harmful to breathe in and cause global warming by trapping the Sun’s heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere, are limited by the federal law known as the Clean Air Act. So, while the EPA is perfectly within its rights to enforce the Clean Air Act, the nine SCOTUS justices ruled 5-4 that the EPA was going beyond the law by trying to make greenhouse gas limits more restrictive.

Still, the EPA seemed happy with the decision, especially since they plan on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants 30% by the year 2030.

The agency released a statement expressing, “Today is a good day for all supporters of clean air and public health and those concerned with creating a better environment for future generations.” Basically, the ruling means that the EPA will still be able to regulate stationary (non-moving) sources responsible for 83% of all greenhouse gases, like power plants and other industrial facilities.

Considering that NASA recently announced May 2014 was the hottest May in recorded history, scientists hope greenhouse limitations enforced by the EPA and other governments across the world will reduce global warming.

As for the presidential appointments decision, SCOTUS ruled unanimously 9-0 against three appointments that President Barack Obama made to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012, which he made without the required Senate approval. It is very rare for all nine SCOTUS judges to agree on a ruling, since they often have different opinions on issues. However, this is an example of the “checks and balances” built into the USA’s government that makes sure neither of the 3 branches has too much power. Here, the judicial branch checked the executive branch’s power, bringing it into balance with the legislative branch.

Featured image courtesy of Franz Jantzen on supremecourt.gov. Image of Gina McCarthy courtesy of USEPA – Environmental Protection Agency on Flickr. Image of May temperatures courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).