The Supreme Court on Wednesday deferred to the Environmental Protection Agency in ruling that the stormwater runoff from logging roads is not a form of water pollution that needs a permit.
The victory for the timber industry came in the form of a 7-1 ruling in Decker v. Northwestern Environmental Defense Center and a companion case, Georgia-Pacific West v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the decision in the case, which had become an important test of the court's deference to administrative agency interpretations of their own regulations. Though endorsing the Environmental Protection Agency in this case, Wednesday's ruling dropped hints that it may reconsider the deference issue when an appropriate case comes along.
The decision was one of two relatively low-profile rulings issued by the court on Wednesday. The other was Wos v. EMA, which declared that the federal Medicaid law pre-empts certain conflicting state restrictions.
With the court in recess until next Monday, the justices' output means that the court heads into next week's historic oral arguments on same-sex marriage with a number of long-pending marquee cases still undecided. Among the awaited rulings, which could be released on the same day as the same-sex marriage arguments: Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, argued Oct. 1, an important Alien Tort Statute case, and Fisher v. University of Texas, the affirmative action case that was argued Oct. 10.
The Decker case involved runoff from logging roads in Tillamook State Forest in Oregon, with Kennedy noting that "it does often [rain] in the mountains of northwest Oregon." The Northwestern Environmental Defense Center, using a citizen-suit provision of the Clean Water Act, went to court alleging that the timber companies as well as the state forester of Oregon had violated the law, because no permits had been obtained for the runoff.
The group invoked a provision of the law that requires a permit for any discharges "associated with industrial activity." But another part of the law exempts discharges "composed entirely of stormwater." The EPA has long interpreted the law to exclude storm runoff from logging roads from the licensing requirement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled, however, that the logging road runoff was not exempted, in spite of the EPA's interpretation.
But Kennedy chose to defer to EPA, asserting, "It is well established that an agency's interpretation need not be the only possible reading of a regulationor even the best oneto prevail." Noting that Oregon imposes its own regulations on logging runoff, Kennedy said the EPA could have reasonably decided that federal regulation would be "duplicative or counterproductive."
In a partial concurrence and dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia mocked Kennedy's "defensive insistence" that the agency's interpretation need not be the best one. Scalia said that excluding logging runoff from regulation is "certainly not the most natural" reading of the law. For several years, Scalia has objected to deferring to agency interpretation of its own rules. In Wednesday's dissent Scalia said, "it is time" to reconsider Auer v. Robbins, a 1997 rulingwhich he wrotecodifying that deference.
Significantly, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote a concurrence acknowledging the debate over Auer and related precedents. But he said the Decker case should not be the vehicle for reassessing the precedents, because the issue was not sufficiently briefed. In a rare reference to the Supreme Court bar, Roberts pointedly added, "The bar is now aware that there is some interest in reconsidering those cases." Justice Samuel Alito Jr. joined Roberts' concurrence.
Jones Day partner Brian Murray, who filed a brief in the case for a group of law professors, said Roberts' suggestion that a reconsideration of Auer could be near is "a huge development. It could change the way we think about administrative rulemaking."