On Friday, in Texas v. EPA, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated EPA’s decision rejecting Texas’s SIP revisions that would have implemented (and did implement, for 16 years) a Flexible Permit Program for minor NSR sources. While genuflecting at the altar of deference to agency decisionmaking, the Court concluded that EPA’s rejection was not based on either EPA factual determinations or on its interpretation of federal, as opposed to state, law. The Court also concluded that EPA had not in fact relied on the reasons given in its briefs, and refused to defer to EPA’s “post hoc rationalizations.” The Court thus gave essentially no deference to EPA’s decision.
The interesting part of the decision was the dissent by Judge Patrick Higginbotham, a Reagan appointee. Judge Higginbotham took the majority to task for “not faithfully applying the deferential arbitrary and capricious standard.” He then persuasively demonstrated why the Texas program, as written, did violate the Clean Air Act.
After dismantling the majority’s logic, he then addressed the practical heart of the case – EPA’s 16-year delay in rejecting the SIP revisions. While criticizing EPA for the delay, Judge Higginbotham pointed out that there is a statutory remedy for EPA’s failure to rule on the revisions – a suit under section 7604(a)(2) of the CAA – a remedy never pursued by Texas.
What’s important about this case is that is an excellent example of why judicial restraint is so often “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” (It’s been a while since I’ve quoted Shakespeare.) When a federal agency unwinds state policy after a sixteen-year delay, it’s very tempting for courts to engage in judicial activism, if that’s what it takes to go upside the agency’s head. The harder course, requiring more discipline, is to remain true the ideal of judicial restraint – that a court is not to substitute its judgment for an agency acting pursuant to an act of Congress. Therefore, Judge Higginbotham’s conclusion seemed worth note:
"As so often with political debate in search of a legal forum, its utility lies largely in pleasure of expression. Angst over perceived federal intrusion into state affairs ought be eased by the reality that laws enacted by Congress are laws of the States. Congress passed the Clean Air Act and made it enforceable by the EPA. The State was represented in that decision by two senators and its thirty-two other elected members of Congress. It also bears mentioning that its former governor was resident in the White House for eight of the years in passage here. The Clean Air Act is not foreign law. I dissent."