In the case, BP P.L.C. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 19-1189, the fossil fuel companies requested an expansive review of issues in the decision to send the case to state court; the city requested that the rules of appeal be interpreted narrowly, in a way that would have allowed the case to proceed in state courts. The court majority ruled that the appeals court should not be overly limited in its review of issues.
The lone dissenter, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said that the fossil fuel companies had used what amounts to procedural sleight of hand to avoid the normal limits on review for a decision on appeal. The new decision, she warned, would open the federal appeals process to gamesmanship, allowing parties to make “near-frivolous arguments” in order to open a back door for appeal.
Justice Gorsuch dismissed such concerns, saying that the legislative branch could address any problems that might arise. “Congress is of course free to revise its work anytime,” he wrote. “But that forum, not this one, is the proper place for such lawmaking.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not participate in the decision; he owns stock in companies involved in the case. Supporters of the plaintiffs in this and similar cases have suggested that Justice Amy Coney Barrett should recuse herself because of family ties to the oil industry. Her vote with the 7-1 majority did not affect the outcome of Monday’s decision.
Sara Gross, chief of Baltimore’s affirmative litigation division in the city department of law, said in a statement, “While this isn’t the outcome we wanted, we are fully confident that the City will prevail again when the remaining issues are considered by the Court of Appeals.”
Phil Goldberg, special counsel for the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, a pro-industry group, said in a statement that the decision “should stop this effort by Baltimore and other communities to circumvent federal law and undermine national efforts to address climate change through comprehensive public policies, innovation and collaboration.” Local courts, he said, are not the place to resolve “this important global challenge.”
In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor brought her argument back to the city and its problems. The Court, she said, is opening new avenues for appeal and delay. “Meanwhile,” she wrote, “Baltimore, which has already waited nearly three years to begin litigation on the merits, is consigned to waiting once more.”