WASHINGTON-The Supreme Court issued two major, unrelated rulings Monday, but both unanimous decisions were a blow to liberal groups.
First, the court rejected a lawsuit from six states that sought to enforce carbon emissions caps on utility companies as a way to combat climate change. The headline on Mother Jones: "SCOTUS Sides With Emitters in Major Global Warming Case." Then the court sided with Walmart in a massive class action lawsuit where female employees alleged sexual discrimination. The headline from an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer blogging on the Huffington Post: "Women, You're on Your Own." The court also declined to hear a lawsuit from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a suit challenging the elimination of the group's federal funding. A lower court upheld Congress' ban on the group's federal funding.
While the opinions were complex, with justices concurring in parts, dissenting in others, they weren't ideologically divided between conservatives and liberals. The court ruled unanimously in rejecting the climate change lawsuit. It also unanimously rejected the Walmart employees' class action lawsuit against the company.
The Walmart case could have been the largest class action settlement in history, potentially affecting 1.6 million women and amounting to potentially billions of dollars in damages to the company. The unanimous decision rejecting the suit reversed a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the women could sue as a class.
The high court, in throwing out the suit, didn't decide whether the women had been discriminated against-the employees will have to argue their cases individually-it simply said they could not sue the company as a class. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the court's opinion, said the women lacked "some glue" holding their allegations of discrimination together, a requirement if they wished "to sue about literally millions of employment decisions at once." The cases were too individualized, under local managers, Scalia wrote, not based on some corporate policy.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing a partial dissent that Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined, agreed that the women couldn't be certified as a class, but wrote that they could perhaps have sued as a class under a different statute. Ginsburg wrote that the evidence "suggests that gender bias suffused Walmart's company culture."
"The Supreme Court has ruled against all women of a poor background in this country," Betty Dukes, the Walmart employee representing the class in court, told Forbes. "It will cost us quite a bit to fight one on one. We are determined to move forward and present our case in court." National unions, the NAACP, and the ACLU had filed amicus briefs in support of the class action suit.
In the carbon emissions suit, the court said that states didn't have the right to enforce emissions' caps for utilities under "public nuisance" laws, laws that states use to curb pollution. The court said that enforcing those caps is the job of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which so far hasn't issued carbon emissions regulations for existing utilities, but enforces rules for new plants.
The Supreme Court in 2007 issued a ruling encouraging the EPA to issue carbon emissions regulations in compliance with the Clean Air Act-that ruling addressed the agency under the Bush administration. The Obama administration joined the five major utilities in the debate on behalf of the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority. Environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife sided with the states-New York, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Vermont-in seeking authority to cap carbon emissions.
Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority in the case, included a note: "The Court, we caution, endorses no particular view of the complicated issues related to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change."