The Ten Supreme Court Decisions This Year That Will Change America

Photo Credit: Getty ImagesWith the Supreme Court on summer recess, it’s time to review the biggest cases of the October 2013 docket. SCOTUSblog’s “Stat Pack” notes that the Court this term had a high degree of unanimity and a relative lack of 5-4 decisions. But by margins both large and small, the court issued a number of important cases.

Reasonable people can, of course, disagree about the importance of any case. In compiling my own list, I generally ranked them with two criteria in mind. First, does the case affect constitutional doctrine, either by clarifying a murky area of law or by raising or lowering a legal bar? Second, will the case have practical consequences, either by shifting billions of dollars in legal rights, or by changing standard operating procedure for government agencies or law enforcement? If a case does either or both of these things, it appears higher on the list.

Here, in reverse order, are my top ten:

10. Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA

This complicated set of cases dealt with the EPA’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide as “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. In a 9-0 decision (at least with respect to the result), the Court held that part of what the EPA was trying to do was not permissible under the Clean Air Act, and part of it was. The Court ruled that the EPA went too far in terms of asserting statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gases and in attempting to “tailor” the statute to regulate only “major emitters” of greenhouse gases. However, the Court said that the EPA could impose carbon limits on facilities that already fall under permitting programs pursuant to other parts of the Clean Air Act. Even though the case didn’t deal with any constitutional rights, it is hugely important, because it involves billions of dollars of regulated activity and the fight over global warming (or global climate change, as it is now called). The decision ensures that industry and the EPA will continue to fight in federal court for years to come. At least the lawyers will be happy.

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