Sept, 25, 2020 | By Evan Rao | Illustration by Xixi Qin
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is often remembered primarily as a fierce advocate of women’s rights, and appropriately so. What is less often acknowledged is that, in her 27 years as a Supreme Court Justice, she made significant strides toward a cleaner and more just environment. Reflecting on rulings she was involved in, Ginsburg can be understood as an incrementalist moderate, far from the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders of today, while remaining an overall consistent and powerful defender of our environment. Following her death, much of this legacy is put in jeopardy, and events which unfold in the coming months will have a lasting impact on the environment throughout this century.
Perhaps Ginsburg’s most consequential environmental ruling was made in the 2007 case Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. The case was brought to the Supreme Court by the state of Massachusetts, amongst others, which had petitioned that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate emissions coming from cars. The EPA had refused, claiming that regulating automobile emissions fell outside their jurisdiction.
Thus, a fierce debate ensued in the Supreme Court. The result was a five-to-four majority ruling which included Ginsburg in favor of Massachusetts. The EPA was forced to adhere to the Clean Air Act, which Ginsburg argued granted them the authority to limit emissions. And two years later, this ruling allowed an Obama-era regulation to go through, limiting the amount of carbon dioxide cars could emit. Perhaps more than any other environmental ruling Ginsburg presided over, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency has had long lasting implications.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy is complicated, however, by her ruling in the 2011 case American Electric Power Company Inc. v. Connecticut. In the case, eight states had filed lawsuits against companies including the American Electric Power Company, which they claimed were disproportionate and damaging emitters of greenhouse gases. The companies in question had argued that only the EPA, rather than specific states, could hold them accountable.
In a majority opinion, Ginsburg ruled that individual states did not have the power to set standards, and thus the states had no case against emitters like the American Electric Power Company. One can understand this ruling as indicative of Ginsburg’s strict adherence to precedent, as her 2007 ruling had given power to the EPA over individual states. However, in ruling in favor of large emitters, one can view Ginsburg’s decision as detrimental to the environment and too politically moderate.
With Ginsburg’s seat now vacant, what comes next is confusing and frightening. If Trump is able to push through a conservative justice, every one of Ginsburg’s rulings protecting the environment is in danger. The Trump administration has already rolled back Obama-era protections against automobile emissions, which Ginsburg supported through her ruling in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency.
Clearly, the Supreme Court has massive influence over almost every aspect of American society, and the environment is no exception. A justice appointed by a Biden administration would likely work to defend Ginsburg’s legacy, but this hinges on Biden getting elected. Nevertheless, the environmental legacy of Ginsburg is a positive one, most clearly reflected in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. She made rulings she felt were consistent and representative of Supreme Court neutrality, while still championing environmental progress where she saw fit. Moving forward, we can take inspiration from her extensive record of protecting the environment, and work to defend her work from those who wish to undermine it.