State Supreme Courts and the “Major Questions” Doctrine

When a legislative body delegates authority to an administrative agency, it cannot envision every future scenario, and often uses language that is regrettably—but necessarily—imprecise. Take, for example, the power given the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to exercise “general supervision and control over the waters of the state.”[1] Or consider the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to select the “best system of emission reduction” for certain entities emitting air pollution. (The United States Supreme Court analyzed the scope of the latter provision earlier this summer in West Virginia v. EPA). Operationalizing such vaguely worded authority has proven difficult for agencies. Disputes about the true extent of the delegation arise when the agency takes action near the limit of the delegation.

In the legal skirmishes that result, courts sometimes find the agency has gone too far. The most recent, high-profile example of this is the West Virginia case, in which the Court endorsed the “major questions” doctrine. The Court examined EPA’s authority to enact a plan to cut emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants. To some extent, the plan required a “generation shifting” approach mandating a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. The Court took a skeptical view of the plan. It held that in certain “extraordinary cases” raising a “major question” of “economic and political significance,” there is good reason to restrain the scope of an administrative agency’s power, especially if Congress had not clearly delegated authority for the agency to take the questioned action. The Court further explained that the doctrine flows from traditional separation of powers principles inherent in the federal constitution. The holding seems likely to restrict the reach of just about any federal agency’s authority.

In light of West Virginia, will state courts adopt state-level equivalents of the “major questions” doctrine, based on the parallel separation of powers principles in state constitutions? In Wisconsin, the answer is not as clear as you might think, particularly in light of two recent Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions rejecting constraints on agency power, even when based on murky conferrals of legislative authority. (more…)

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Interdisciplinary Research in Stormwater Management

When it rains or snows, the resulting runoff can collect pollutants including salts, fertilizers, chemicals, oils, and sediment, among other things. These contaminants have the potential to impair surface water and groundwater that receive the runoff. Communities in the United States face growing Stormwater flowing to a gratechallenges to effective stormwater management as a result of aging infrastructure, increasing urbanization, changing climate, and shrinking budgets, among other factors.  These changes have increasingly stressed existing “static” stormwater management systems, such as pipe networks and ponds, that are intended simply to convey storm flows to nearby receiving waters without regard to overall system conditions.

Dealing with these stressors requires innovative and resilient solutions such as real time control (RTC) or “dynamic” stormwater management systems.  RTC systems are typically automated or semi-automated and involve the use of sophisticated dynamic models to operate stormwater controls in real time, such as modifying setpoints to open and close valves, or routing storm water differently under particular system conditions.  The goal of an RTC system is to continuously regulate the flow in the various branches of a network based on real-time information related to system capacity and weather conditions, thus reducing the magnitude of outflows during storms and relieving other stresses on the system.

During a recent grant-funded project, an interdisciplinary team of Marquette law faculty, engineering faculty, and students from both disciplines studied dozens of examples involving RTC implementation in the United States and abroad.  We also examined the literature detailing institutional barriers to RTC innovation.  And we reviewed numerous legal decisions related to municipal liability for stormwater management (or mismanagement). Finally, we suggested a variety of strategies to combat these institutional and legal barriers to smooth the transition to RTC systems. (more…)

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court Slows Down The “Quiet Revolution”

About four years ago I wrote a blog post titled “The Quiet Revolution in Wisconsin Administrative Law.” My purpose then was to point out an “unprecedented makeover in longstanding principles of state-level administrative law” that “shift[ed] power away from agencies and toward The Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, Wis.courts, the legislature, and the governor.” Last week the Wisconsin Supreme Court finally took the field to address that trend, issuing two opinions in companion cases that effectively loosened one of the key new legislative constraints on agency authority. As a result, the pendulum has swung back toward increased agency discretion and clout. The opinions are also important because they continue a recent revival of the Wisconsin public trust doctrine, reversing a slide that I identified in a 2016 blog post.

The court granted review in the two cases  (both captioned Clean Wisconsin v. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2021 WI 71 and 2021 WI 72)) to address one of the issues I focused on in the 2017 post: the scope of Wis. Stat. § 227.10(2m). That statute provides that no agency may implement any “standard,” “requirement,” or permit condition unless the condition has been “explicitly required or explicitly permitted’ by statute or by rule.  The resulting opinions, joined by an unusual mix of justices in a four-vote majority, limit the statute’s influence and slow down the “quiet revolution.”

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Chicago’s Lakefront: The Rise of the Public Trust Doctrine (and Much More)

Urbs in Horto”— city in a garden—is the motto Chicago’s founders chose upon the city’s incorporation on March 4, 1837. At the time, this was more of a vision than a statement of fact, as the city had few public parks then, and preserving its existing open spaces seemed uncertain at best. Given the industrial waterfronts in many other large cities, it is a marvel that Chicagoans made that early vision a reality, at least along the water, by creating the city’s magnificent lakefront parks and protecting open space over nearly two centuries. How did it happen, and what are the lessons for urban development more generally? The definitive account is provided in Lakefront, a remarkable new book twenty years in the making, coauthored by Marquette Law School Dean (and Chicago native) Joseph D. Kearney and Columbia University’s Thomas W. Merrill.

Lakefront is, at its core, a story about Chicago and the development of its world-renowned lakefront. But Kearney and Merrill also make a significant contribution in untangling the American development of the public trust doctrine, which has been called “unquestionably one of the most important elements of U.S. natural resources law.”[1] The Supreme Court has recognized the doctrine’s ancient origin and its roots in Roman law.[2] Scholars have traced it to the Code of Justinian. Today the doctrine is generally thought to protect and preserve certain natural resources of a “special character,” through a perpetual trust intended to prevent the unimpeded exercise of private rights upon them. But clarifying the doctrine’s operational reach has proven difficult, and it has evolved into many different strains of varying strength primarily governed by state common law. However, all agree that Justice Stephen Field’s 1892 opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois was the moment at which the doctrine became a prominent feature of American law. Lakefront provides groundbreaking new details and a blow-by-blow account of how the case originated from the battles between public and private rights on the Chicago lakefront.

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Congratulations to Marquette’s Environmental Law Moot Court Team

I intended to write this post in March, upon returning from Spring Break, but 2020 got in the way. Better late than never, as they say; and I would be remiss not to recognize the excellent work of our 2019-20 Environmental Law Moot Court team, consisting of Caleb Tomaszewski and Adam Vanderheyden. The team (pictured here along with coach Dennis Grzezinski) competed in the 2020 National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition hosted by Pace University in White Plains, New York.…

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