Supreme Court Upends Public Health and Safety Protections

Statement by Dr. Jennifer Jones, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Jun 28, 2024

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that the federal courts can overrule the experts at federal agencies whose job is to implement public health and safety laws. Instead, federal courts would be the arbiters of regulatory questions, including those involving science.

The ruling, which combined two cases, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce, means that if Congress was not absolutely explicit when it crafted a law—which essentially would require Congress to possess the scientific and technical expertise of federal agency experts—it opens the door for corporate polluters and others who dislike the statute to get it overturned. This is an indefensible ruling that will make it harder to protect people and enforce laws against pollution and other public health threats, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Below is a statement by Dr. Jennifer Jones, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.

“Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled—confirming decades of practice—that experts at federal agencies have a role in interpreting the laws passed by Congress, and that the courts should defer to those experts’ reasonable interpretations. For decades, that principle has guided the way laws that protect public health, consumer rights, workers, and the environment are implemented. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has formally broken that precedent. The impact will be enormous. By paralyzing federal agencies and inviting lawsuits against the rules these agencies implement, this decision will profoundly undermine bedrock laws like the Clean Air Act that are meant to protect public health. Policies that should be based on the best available scientific evidence will be at risk of being dismantled by the whims and ideological preferences of unelected judges, and people will suffer as a result. The hubris of the majority in this case is hard to overstate. They’ve taken power from the elected branches of government and seized that power for themselves.

“The decisions in Loper Bright and Relentless are the result of well-funded campaigns by powerful industries and ideological interest groups that prioritize their profits reaped from polluting or harmful activities and fiercely oppose any effort to implement science-based public health protections. This is a reckless ruling, justified in abstract legal language, but the intent of these lawsuits—and the impacts of the ruling—is to make environmental, safety, and public health protections harder to implement and enforce, leaving millions of people breathing dirtier air, drinking dirtier water, and living and working in more dangerous conditions.

“In concert with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Ohio v. EPA case, this Supreme Court term has strengthened the power of corporations to prevent environmental and public health laws from being meaningfully enforced.

“The damage that’s been done is significant and won't be easy to fix. Nevertheless, Congress has the responsibility to step into the breach to look for options to shore up protections for people and provide agency experts the appropriate authority they need to protect the public interest.”