People of the State of California versus General Motors

By Anthony Howard,2014-06-28 18:27
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People of the State of California versus General Motors ...





     On September 17, 2007, the United States District Court for the Northern District of

    California granted the General Motors Corporation‟s motion to dismiss against the State of

    California for a claim of public nuisance.1 In granting this motion, the Court concluded that the claiming of global warming as a public nuisance raised a “political question” and was therefore,

    2nonjusticiable. The author of this paper believes this decision was made in error and the matter

    of global warming being a public nuisance is not a political question and should be tried by the

    courts in this country. This paper will first examine the history and facts of the district court case.

    Secondly, this paper will look into relevant portions of the Clean Air Act as it pertains to the

    matters of this case. Next, the recent decision of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency will be examined as its holding was heavily relied upon in the briefs and holding of the


     The remainder of the paper will consist of an analysis of the relevant portions of the

    political question doctrine as laid out in Baker v. Carr. The Baker factors considered in this

     ? Nicole Rae Strong, University of South Dakota School of Law, J.D. candidate, 2009. Drake University,

    B.A. Politics 2006. 1 California v. General Motors Corp., 2007 WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. 2007). 2 Id.


paper are: (1) Did resolution of Plaintiff‟s federal common law nuisance claim require the Court

    to make an initial policy decision?; (2) Did Plaintiff‟s claim implicate a textually demonstrable

    constitutional commitment to the political branches?; and (3) Is there a lack of judicially

    discoverable or manageable standards by which to resolve Plaintiff‟s claim? While the Court in California v. General Motors found the issue to be non-justiciable, the author maintains the

    position that the issue of global warming does not raise a political question and the State‟s public

    nuisance claim should have been heard.


     The State of California sought damages against various automakers

    3 for “creating, and

    4contributing to, an alleged public nuisance—global warming.” In its Complaint for Damages

    and Declaratory Judgment, California stated the “[s]cientific debate is over: the massive

    atmospheric increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from human

    activity has changed the climate and will further change the climate over the next decades.”5

    Plaintiff‟s allegations were backed by the following actions of the defendants: annual emissions

    of 289 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 9% of the world‟s carbon dioxide emissions, and

    30% of emissions from within the State of California.6

     3 Defendants in this action are: General Motors Corp.; Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; Ford Motor

    Co., American; Honda Motor Co., Inc.; Daimler Chrysler Corp.; and Nissan North America, Inc. Id. at


    4 Id. 5 Complaint at 1, California v. General Motors Corp., 2006 WL 2726547 (N.D. Cal. 2006) (No.

    3:06CV05755). 6 Id. at 2.


    7 In response to Plaintiff‟s Complaint, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. Defendants

    stated Plaintiff‟s complaint “must be dismissed because it raises nonjusticiable issues properly

    8reserved for resolution by the political branches of the federal government.” In support of this

    argument, Defendants alleged that resolution of this issue “would require the Court to make an

    9initial policy determination.” The second argument in support of Defendants‟ nonjusticiable

    theory alleged “[t]he lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards” requires

    10dismissal of Plaintiffs‟ public nuisance claim.

    11 In answering this question, the Court was required to apply the test from Baker v. Carr.

    12Baker v. Carr set forth six factors for a court to consider when evaluating “political questions.”

    A case may be found to involve a political question if there is found:

    A textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate

    political department; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable

    standards for resolving it; or the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy

    determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; or the impossibility of a

    court‟s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect

    due coordinate branches of government; or an unusual need for unquestioning

    adherence to a political decision already made; or the potentiality of

    embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one


    In making its decision, the Court relied primarily on the third factor, asking whether the case

    could be decided “without making an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for

     7 Motion to Dismiss, California v. General Motors, 2006 WL 3747438 (N.D. Cal. 2006) (No.

    3:06CV05755). 8 Id. at 5. 9 Id. at 7. 10 Id. at 10. 11 California v. General Motors Corp., 2007 WL 2726871, at *6 (N.D. Cal. 2007); Baker v. Carr, 82 S.Ct.

    691 (1962). 12 Baker, 82 S. Ct. at 710. 13 Id.


    14nonjudicial discretion.” The Court additionally looked at the first and second Baker indicators, looking to a “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to the political

    1516branches” and “judicially discoverable or manageable standards.” The Court began its

    17analysis with the third Baker indicator involving the making of an initial policy determination.

     In Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., the Supreme Court

    recognized that to resolve a typical air pollution case, courts would be required to “strike a

    balance „between interests seeking strict schemes to reduce pollution rapidly to eliminate its

    social costs and interests advancing the economic concern that strict schemes will retard

    industrial development with attendant social costs.‟”18 The Court determined that this balancing

    of interests requires an “initial policy determination” to be made by the political branches of

    19governmentCongress and the Presidentand not the courts.

     Plaintiffs contended that the Court would not be required to make an initial policy

    determination; rather than having to “determine whether Defendants‟ actions have been

    unreasonable,” Plaintiffs argued instead that the Court need only decide “whether the

    interference suffered by California is unreasonable.”20 The Court was not convinced by this

    argument, however, stating that it was still “left to make an initial decision as to what is

     14 General Motors, 2007 WL 2726871, at *6 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (citing Baker, 82 S.Ct. at 710). 15 General Motors, 2007 WL 2726871, at *13. 16 Id. at *14. 17 Id. at *6. 18 Id. at *7 (quoting Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 267 U.S. 837, 847

    (1984)). 19 General Motors, 2007 WL 2726871, at *7. 20 Id. at *8.


    21unreasonable in the context of carbon dioxide emissions.” This “initial decision”, the Court stated would require the creation of a “quotient or standard” in order to quantify the damages

    22caused by Defendants‟ alleged acts.

     The Court next went on to discuss whether the political branches of the government have

    yet made an “initial policy determination” regarding global warming and carbon dioxide

    emission standards.23 The Court looked to both the direct actions and the inactions of the

    24political branches of the government. The Court examined the enactment of both the Clean Air

    25Act (CAA) and the Energy and Policy Conservation Act (EPCA).

    By themselves, the CAA and EPCA do not directly address the issue of global

    warming and carbon dioxide emission standards. However, when read in

    conjunction with the prevalence of international and national debate, and the

    resulting policy actions and inactions, the Court finds that injecting itself into the

    global warming thicket at this juncture would require an initial policy

    determination of the type reserved for the political branches of government.26

    Thus, the Court found it could not adjudicate Plaintiffs‟ public nuisance claim without making an

    27“initial policy determination” of a kind left for nonjudicial discretion.

     Even though the Court had determined the Plaintiffs‟ public nuisance claim should be

    28dismissed, it continued a further analysis under two additional Baker indicators. The next step

    the Court took was to look at “whether the issues before the court implicate a textually

     21 Id. 22 Id. 23 Id. at *9. 24 Id. at *8. 25 General Motors, 2007 WL 2726871, at *9. 26 Id. at *10. 27 Id. at *13. 28 Id.


    29demonstrable constitutional commitment to the political branches of government.” Defendants put forth the argument that the issue was taken care of by “Congress‟s enumerated power over

    30interstate commerce and the political branches‟ enumerated power over foreign policy.” Plaintiffs countered, maintaining the public nuisance claim is a commitment of power to the

    31federal judiciary unrelated to interstate commerce or foreign policy.

     The Court determined that Plaintiffs‟ public nuisance claims called into question matters

    32of interstate commerce and foreign policy. This implication of power caused the court to take a

    33closer look at whether they could exercise subject matter jurisdiction in spite of this finding. The Court did not find itself justified in overcoming this matter and determined that Plaintiffs‟

    public nuisance claim “would have an inextricable effect on interstate commerce and foreign

    policy.”34 And as these issues were “constitutionally committed” to the political branches of

    35government, the Court was not suited to grant subject matter jurisdiction.

     The Court lastly examined the second Baker indicator, asking “whether there are

    36judicially discoverable or manageable standards available to resolve the question before it.” Similar to the argument earlier presented by Defendants is the idea that it is “impossible for the Court to determine what constitutes an unreasonable level of carbon dioxide produced by

     29 Id. 30 Id. 31 General Motors, 2007 WL 2726871, at *13. 32 Id. at *14. 33 Id. 34 Id. 35 Id. 36 Id.


    37Defendants‟ vehicles . . . .” These arguments are linked in that Defendants contend that the

    determination of “what constitutes an unreasonable level of carbon dioxide” would be an “initial

    38policy determination.” Plaintiffs‟ reaction to this argument stated that because the claim sought

    damages only, the common law framework for settling a public nuisance claim is already


     As with the previous two arguments set forth by Plaintiffs, the Court found this Baker

    40indicator also required dismissal of the public nuisance claim. Contrary to Plaintiffs‟ claim, the Court found that the request for monetary as opposed to equitable damages left the Court without

    “judicially discoverable or manageable standards by which to properly adjudicate Plaintiff‟s

    federal common law global warming nuisance claim.”41 As the Court determined Plaintiffs‟ public nuisance claim failed at least three Baker indicators, it granted Defendant‟s motion to




     In response to problems of air pollution, several state and federal laws were passed to

     37 General Motors, 2007 WL 2726871, at *14. 38 Id. 39 Id. 40 Id. at *16. 41 Id. 42 Id.


    43create funding for the study and cleanup of air pollution. Included in this mass legislation was

    44the original Clean Air Act of 1963 (CAA), located at 42 U.S.C. ?? 7401-7626. In 1970,

    Congress both passed a much stronger Clean Air Act and also created the Environmental

    45Protection Agency (EPA), granting it the role of carrying out the CAA. The CAA was

    46substantially revised and expanded in 1990. These amendments provided the EPA with even

    broader authority to implement and enforce regulations designed to reduce air pollutant


    48 The Clean Air Act is comprised of seven titles. At issue here is Title II which covers

    49“Emission Standards for Moving Sources.” These emission standards apply to three categories

    5051of “moving sources." Part A covers “Motor Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards,” Part B

    5253covers “Aircraft Emission Standards,” and Part C pertains to “Clean Fuel Vehicles.”

     Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to issue rules designed to “reduce pollution

    54from vehicle exhaust, refueling emissions and evaporating gasoline.” These emission

     43 United States Environmental Protection Agency, The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act, Pub. No. EPA-456/K-07-001 (April 2007), available at [hereinafter

    Plain English Guide].

    44 Id. 45 Id. 46 Id. 47 Id. 48 Title I: Air Pollution Prevention and Control; Title II: Emission Standards for Moving Sources; Title III:

    General Provisions; Title IV: Noise Pollution; Title IV-A: Acid Deposition Control; Title V: Permits;

    Title VI: Stratospheric Ozone Protection. Clean Air Act (CAA), 42 U.S.C. ? 7401-7626 (xxxx).

    49 CAA, 42 U.S.C. ?? 7521-7590 (xxxx). 50 Id. 51 CAA, 42 U.S.C. ?? 7521-7554 (xxxx). 52 CAA, 42 U.S.C. ?? 7571-7574 (xxxx). 53 CAA, 42 U.S.C. ?? 7581-7590 (xxxx). 54 Plain English Guide, supra note 43.


standards are to be applicable to any air pollutant that the EPA believes causes or contributes to

    air pollution that reasonably can be “anticipated to endanger public health or welfare” in any new

    55motor vehicle or new motor vehicle engine.

     The EPA is instructed to create emission standards that “reflect the greatest degree of emission reduction achievable through the application of technology which the Administrator

    determines will be available for the model year to which such standards apply, giving

    appropriate consideration to cost, energy, and safety factors associated with the application of

    such technology.”56 The EPA creates rules designed to reduce vehicle emissions in a variety of

    57vehicle categories: cars, light-duty trucks, and heavy-duty trucks. In making these vehicle

    classifications, the EPA is permitted to take into consideration such things as vehicle weight,

    58horsepower, the type of fuel used, and any other appropriate factors.


     A group of states, local governments, and private organizations brought action against

    the EPA, claiming that it had “abdicated its responsibility under the Clean Air Act to regulate the

    emissions of four greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.”59 Out of this claim, two

    questions arose: “whether EPA has the statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions

    from new motor vehicles; and if so, whether its stated reasons for refusing to do so are consistent

     55 CAA, 42 U.S.C. ? 7521(a)(1) (xxxx). 56 CAA, 42 U.S.C. ? 7521(a)(3)(A) (xxxx). 57 Plain English Guide, supra note 43. 58 CAA, 42 U.S.C. ? 7521(a)(3)(A) (xxxx). 59 Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1237 S. Ct. 1438, 1446 (2007).


    60with the statute.” In response to these questions, the EPA challenged the standing of the


     The EPA contends that “because greenhouse gas emissions inflict widespread harm, the

    62doctrine of standing presents an insuperable jurisdictional obstacle.” The Court did not agree

    with this argument and found that standing instead asks the question of whether those bringing a

    63claim have a personal stake in the issue. As states entered the Union, they surrendered certain

    64sovereign powers. Relevant to the subject of air pollution, states have surrendered their power

    to invade neighboring states to force reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the ability to

    65negotiate treaties with foreign countries. These powers were surrendered to the federal government, and in the case of air pollution, Congress has ordered the EPA to protect the states

    66by prescribing standards application to air pollutant emissions. Given this procedural process,

    67the Court found that Massachusetts did have a personal stake in protecting its state-interests.

     In finding that Massachusetts had standing to bring this claim, the Court also took a

    more in-depth look into the three requirements of standing: injury in fact, causation, and an

    available remedy.68 As to the question of injury, the Court rejected the argument put forth by the

    EPA that the “widely shared” risks of air pollutant emissions minimize a state‟s interest in the

     60 Id. 61 Id. 62 Id. at 1453. 63 Id. 64 Id. at 1454. 65 Massachusetts v. EPA, 1237 S. Ct. at 1454. 66 Id. 67 Id. 68 Id. at 1455-1458.


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