On June 25, 2007, the Supreme Court, in another 5-4 decision, resolved a procedural conflict between to federal agencies pertaining to the protection of endangered species, the result of which is to lessen the protection given to endangered species.
The legal question around which this case centered is whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)is required to consider whether a construction project would jeopardize an endangered species before transferring permitting authority to a state (Arizona). The Supreme Court answered this in the negative; they said that the Clean Water Act of 1972 requires that the EPA transfer permitting responsibility for a project to the applicable state once nine criteria are satisfied. And that is what the EPA did.Thereupon, Defenders of Wildlife filed suit directly in U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, requesting the court to order the EPA to first insure that a water project would not endanger the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl and the Pima pineapple cactus. The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the petitioners (Defenders of Wildlife). However, the Supreme Court reversed, ruling that the EPA had correctly transferred permitting authority.
Having given this brief description of the case, you might ask, “So what?” What makes this case important? The answer is that this ruling is a setback to those who have sought to place protection of endangered species as a higher priority than the primary purposes of other federal agencies and programs. The four dissenting Justices (Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer) argued that the majority's interpretation of the Clean Water Act reverses a long-standing mandate that Congress must make protection of endangered species a priority over the “primary missions” of other federal agencies.
(J. Stevens, dissent, p. 2). But the opinion of Justice Alito (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas) disagrees.
This case was necessary because of a difference in the Circuit Courts in addressing this procedural issue. It is not clear to me that the decision will necessarily be more or less protective of endangered species. I believe it will relegate to states more of the enforcement of endangered species protection; perhaps this will yield some inconsistent interpretations of law. But I favor this deference to the States; it should mean that decisions regarding the protection of endangered species will be made by the people closest to the situation, and therefore perhaps more sensitive the the affects and influences of such issues. It certainly divests the federal government of some control over protection of endangered species.