Despite unprecedented challenges, America’s legal system has held. In recent weeks the courts have repeatedly defended democracy and in the last four years they have overturned a wide range of environmental assaults. The stacking of the Supreme Court with conservative justices did not prevent the highest court in the land from rebuffing baseless accusations of voter fraud. Dozens of lower court rulings have also denied lawsuits designed to overturn election results. Trump and his allies are currently 1 for 59 in their legal efforts to subvert democracy. The Supreme Court denied Texas’ petition to invalidate election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. This doomed effort was supported by 106 congressional Republicans and 18 state attorneys general. On December 11, all 7 justices unanimously denied relief citing a lack of standing (ie the failure to demonstrate their case)
On December 8 the Supreme Court rejected a Republican lawsuit that sought to reverse Pennsylvania’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Without comment the court dismissed the case and refused to call into question the certification process. On December 15, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court threw out Trump’s latest attempt to overturn his electoral defeat.
The courts impartiality is a credit to a legal system that is the last bulwark against a demagogue doggedly pursuing authoritarian power. In 2018 after Trump called a judge who ruled against him an “Obama judge,” Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement which read: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.” In 2019 Roberts wrote, “We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability,” adding, “we should also remember that justice is not inevitable.”
The courts have ruled against a wide range of environmental insults emanating from the Trump administration’s policies and their dismantling of environmental protections. There have been several rulings on fossil fuel projects in recent months. On December 7 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected the Trump administration’s approval of the Liberty offshore oil-drilling project in federal Arctic waters. The legal challenge to defend Alaska’s coast along the Beaufort Sea was mounted by a coalition of groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, and Pacific Environment. In its ruling the court cited climate concerns and the failure to adequately analyze the impact on polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.
The courts have issued a series of legal setbacks to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which oversees fossil fuel development on public lands. Judges have applied the law which clearly states the BLM cannot ignore climate concerns in its bid to open public lands to fossil fuel extraction. In November the BLM’s leasing plans where stymied when a federal court judge ruled that the agency failed to disclose the climate impacts related to the leasing of more than 300,000 acres in Wyoming for oil and gas extraction. In a 2019 ruling the same judge ruled that the agency’s initial analysis of drilling was inadequate.
On September 25 a federal judge in Montana ousted BLM Acting Director William Perry Pendley from that post. The action was in response to a lawsuit filed by Montana Governor Steve Bullock who argued its illegal for Pendley to continue because he had never been confirmed by the Senate. Like many Trump appointees Pendley is an attorney who has spent much of his career opposing the agency he briefly oversaw.
On June 16, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., settled the decades-long fight to protect the Badger-Two Medicine region near Glacier National Park in Montana. The ruling upholds the cancellation of the last remaining federal oil and gas lease in the area.
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