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What does a Supreme Court reversal mean for clean water and car safety?


The Supreme Court's decision on Friday to overturn a four-decade-old precedent may affect the government's ability to regulate everything from car safety to health devices to the environment.


That precedent was known as the Chevron doctrine. It gave government agencies a lot of leeway to interpret federal regulations. The doctrine held that when the law is unclear, the court should defer to agency experts such as scientists or economists who are immersed in the subject. The high court essentially threw that idea out.

MARTIN: And last week, the justices also blocked the EPA's good neighbor plan, which was meant to limit air pollution blowing across state lines. David A. Kaplan is a veteran legal affairs correspondent who's written a book about the high court's decision making. So we called him to hear more about what's behind this and what the impact might be. Good morning.

DAVID KAPLAN: Good morning.

MARTIN: So taken together, just how consequential are these decisions?

KAPLAN: You could argue that these are the most important decisions of the court in at least a decade. These decisions have the potential to reorder power within the federal government and the ability of federal experts to produce clean air, safe drugs, safe cars and so forth.

MARTIN: Just give me a sense of what this means for the day-to-day life of Americans.

KAPLAN: Well, laws that Congress passes on the environment - clean air, clean water, for example - have to be general. Congress can't get involved - especially in, you know, these days - when it's paralyzed in determining what the right amount of benzene is allowed in water or pollutants in the air. And we rely on experts to do that - same thing for cars and technology and drugs.

And what the court said is, nope, now we're going to throttle the power of those bureaucrats, and if they do something that we think is out of their lane, those regulations don't stand. And instead of deferring to their judgments, now we in the federal judiciary will make those decisions.

MARTIN: So obviously, all these cases aren't going to go to the high court right away. They have to go to the lower courts first. Are the lower courts equipped to handle the - I'm just guessing - the volume of disputes like this that they will now be expected to adjudicate?

KAPLAN: Federal courts are generally pretty good at managing that docket. I would not be concerned - if I were an average American, you know, I wouldn't be concerned about caseload. I'd be concerned about - you know, are these the people you want to be making these decisions? The Supreme Court says, yes.

MARTIN: So these decisions fell along the ideological lines on the Supreme Court that we all know so well. But it can take years to get cases to the high court. So I just wanted to ask, like, what is behind this push to overturn this precedent and to throw the - this sort of precedent of administrative law? I mean, this is considered the cornerstone of administrative law. Like, what's behind that?

KAPLAN: Well, it's long been the goal of corporate interests and sophisticated conservatives to get rid of Chevron. And, you know, Roe v. Wade was important. And gun control, religion - they're important. But the real sophisticates, and the ones who helped Donald Trump in his first term, were to get rid of Chevron. And the main White House counsel, Don McGahn - when he interviewed nominees for the federal bench, including for the Supreme Court, he looked the - his signpost was getting rid of Chevron, not so much Roe v. Wade. And it took 40 years to do this, and they've, along with a lot of other judicial goals, accomplished it.

MARTIN: And what is the - kind of the underlying sort of ideological view that is sort of prevailing here? What is the - what's the philosophy behind that?

KAPLAN: We don't like regulations. Regulations cost money. It hurts businesses. It's more that than ideology. I think it's more economic whereas issues like abortion and guns are more cultural war issues. This one was more important to many conservatives within the movement. Didn't get the headlines that the other cases did - but this was the big one.

MARTIN: And just before we let you go, I mean, obviously, business actors do understand sort of the complexity of these issues themselves. There are sometimes, you know, disputes within industries, within businesses, in the same space over how these matters should be interpreted. Do you think that there's really unanimity on this point, or is it certain types of businesses consider this more important than others? As briefly as you can.

KAPLAN: I don't know that it's monolithic, but I think there's a general view that there are just too many regs in technology, environment, medical, and we need to at least curtail that or give the power of judges to make the decisions rather than the so-called expert.

MARTIN: That is former Newsweek editor David A. Kaplan. He's the author of "The Most Dangerous Branch." Mr. Kaplan, thank you so much.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.