A Belated Thank You to Hunton & WIlliams from Sierra Club for PSD?

Posted on March 27, 2012 by Richard Lazarus

I attended on February 28th and 29th the oral arguments in the D.C. Circuit for what are euphemistically referred to as the “Greenhouse Gas Cases” now pending before that court. Two days of arguments, with 17 different attorneys presenting oral argument.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the judges weren’t the only ones who lost track of which issues were being addressed by different advocates.  The advocates themselves seemed to forget at times and repeatedly walked over each other’s lines.  It reminded me why the Supreme Court is so reluctant to allow for divided argument even in circumstances when the case for divided argument is otherwise quite compelling.

I will leave it to others to dwell on what the D.C. Circuit is likely to do, and instead will don my academic garb for an ironic aside on the history of the CAA’s PSD program. In watching the oral arguments, I was reminded about the extraordinary role that Hunton & Williams has played since the emergence of modern environmental law serving as environmental counsel for the powerplant industry including in this latest round.  One would be hard-pressed to identify any other law firm that has been such a constant and consistent voice on behalf of industry during the past four-plus decades of environmental litigation, especially on air pollution matters.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, those industrial clients might have fared a bit better had Hunton & Williams made one discrete exception to the consistency of its record.  The PSD program today finds its origins in the Supreme Court’s 1973 affirmance by an equally divided Court in Fri v. Sierra Club of a district court ruling that embraced the Sierra Club’s claim that the Clean Air Act, as drafted in 1970, required EPA to prevent “significant deterioration” of areas of the nation that were at the time cleaner than national ambient air quality standards.   The papers of Justice Harry Blackmun, which can be found in the Library of Congress, reveal, however, that Sierra Club achieved that affirmance after Hunton & Williams filed an amicus brief in the case in support of Edison Electric’s contention that the Clean Air Act did not require such a program. That filing apparently prompted Justice Lewis Powell – a former Hunton & Williams partner – to recuse himself from the case (after sitting at oral argument), resulting in the 4/4 split.  There is little doubt, based on his other pro-business votes in environmental pollution cases how Justice Powell would have voted had he not recused himself. The most certain upshot would have been an EPA victory and therefore the Agency never would have had to promulgate PSD regulations in compliance with the High Court’s ruling. And the absence of those initial PSD regulations would have dramatically shifted the political dynamic when Congress was amending the statute in 1977.

What I have always found especially odd about the firm’s amicus filing in the PSD case is that this was not the first time Justice Powell had recused himself in light of Hunton & William’s participation in a case before the Court, including on behalf of the powerplant industry as amicus curiae.  The Justice had done so consistently since joining the Court, which makes one wonder what the firm was thinking when it filed the amicus brief in Fri v. Sierra Club.  Interestingly, Justice Powell ended that recusal practice soon afterwards.  Perhaps the Justice received a very unhappy communication from either Henry Nickel or his close friend at the firm, George Freeman, regarding the necessity of a recusal in those circumstances?  Of course, I have no knowledge whether such a communication ever in fact occurred, but it does not take a lot of imagination to speculate that some folks at Hunton were likely exceedingly unhappy about the Justice’s recusal in light of the Court’s 4/4 affirmance. 

In all events, and regardless of the outcome of the recent greenhouse gas cases before the D.C. Circuit, the Sierra Club’s thank-you note to Hunton & Williams would seem long overdue. 



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