Posts in Supreme Court.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Service) and a group of landowners recently settled long-running litigation regarding the Service’s designation of approximately 1,500 acres of private land as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog (Rana sevosa).  The Service designated the private land in Louisiana as critical habitat in 2012.  Weyerhaeuser Co. and local landowners sued the Service, arguing that designation of the private land where the frog could not currently survive was overreach ...

On December, 10, 2018, the United States Supreme Court granted a petition for writ of certiorari in Kisor  v. Wilkie (No. 18-15), which raises the issue of whether Auer deference should be overruled.  Auer deference (also known as Seminole Rock deference) requires courts to defer to an agency's reasonable interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations.  Auer deference is similar to Chevron deference, which requires courts to defer to an agency's reasonable interpretation of ambiguous statutes.  As this blog has noted, agency deference has been in the spotlight recently ...

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in California Sea Urchin Commission v. Combs (Combs), Docket No. 17-1636, an appeal from a Ninth Circuit decision regarding endangered Southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) and deference to the decisions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service).  As we reported here last month, the case was seen as a potential vehicle for the Court to take up the broader issue of Chevron deference, the legal doctrine that requires courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute so long as that interpretation is ...

On October 1, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the first case of its new term, Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dkt. No. 17-71. The case concerns the designation of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the dusky gopher frog (Rana sevosa) in an area that is not currently capable of sustaining a frog population. The central issue in the appeal is whether an area that currently does not possess some of the characteristics deemed essential for the frog’s survival may nevertheless be designated as unoccupied critical habitat for ...

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The last several days have seen a flurry of activity in the federal courts in matters involving the Endangered Species Act (ESA):

  • In Crown Indian Tribe v. United States, CV 17-89-M-DLC, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana vacated (pdf) a June 30, 2017 final rule issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) delisting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). The court held that the Service violated the ESA when it delisted the Greater Yellowstone grizzly distinct population segment (DPS) without any analysis of ...
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As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares for its upcoming October 2018 term, one petition concerning an endangered sea otter relocation program is attracting a lot of attention as a potential vehicle for the Court to consider the broader issue of Chevron deference, the legal doctrine that requires courts to defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. The petition has also created odd bedfellows, as the Department of Justice under the Trump Administration finds itself arguing alongside several national environmental non-profit organizations that the ...

On July 9, 2018, President Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who currently sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to replace retiring Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court. While much of the public discourse about Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination has focused on hot-button issues like abortion and the Second Amendment, the addition of Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court could also have significant effects on a range of environmental laws and regulations, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

One of Judge Kavanaugh’s most well-known environmental opinions is from Otay Mesa Property, L.P. v. Interior, 646 F.3d 914 (D.C. Cir. 2011). In Otay Mesa, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) had observed four endangered San Diego fairy shrimp (Branchinecta sandiegonensis) in one location on a dirt road on the plaintiffs’ 143-acre property. Based on that single observation, the Service designated the plaintiffs’ property as occupied habitat for purposes of its critical habitat designation under the ESA. The D.C. Circuit held that substantial evidence did not support the Service’s designation of critical habitat for the San Diego fairy shrimp. Judge Kavanaugh explained that while the Service may protect areas outside of the geographic range occupied by an ESA-protected species as essential to the species’ conservation, it had instead asserted that this was occupied habitat for the fairy shrimp. Judge Kavanaugh found that a single observation of a species did not provide sufficient evidence that the area was occupied habitat. And while the Service was under no requirement to continue looking for the endangered shrimp, Judge Kavanaugh noted that the lack of such an obligation is not the same as an authorization to act without data to support its conclusions. 646 F.3d at 918. This opinion suggests that Judge Kavanaugh is likely to narrowly interpret the provisions of the ESA.

Similarly, Justice Kavanaugh’s position on Chevron deference may have wide ranging consequences for environmental statutes, including the ESA.

Nossaman’s Endangered Species Law & Policy blog focuses on news, events, and policies affecting endangered species issues in California and throughout the United States. Topics include listing and critical habitat decisions, conservation and recovery planning, inter-agency consultation, and related developments in law, policy, and science. We also inform readers about regulatory and legislative developments, as well as key court decisions.

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