By Mark Schleifstein
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a request to reopen a lawsuit that charged energy companies with contributing to the effects of Hurricane Katrina by emitting greenhouse gases.
The result means victory for about 30 energy companies that were being sued by Mississippi homeowners, who claimed that by emitting greenhouse gases, the companies helped cause global warming and exacerbated Katrina’s wrath.
The Supreme Court was asked to step in after members of the 16-judge 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recused themselves. The recusals were so numerous that the court could not conduct a rehearing of a partially successful appeal of the suit.
At issue for the nation’s highest court was the question of whether the 5th Circuit should have dismissed the appeal after determining that it lacked a quorum. Under the circuit court’s rules, the court’s original three-judge decision in favor of the homeowners had been vacated after the full court agreed to rehear the case, and the appeal was dismissed by the failure to get a quorum.
The 5th Circuit’s failure to rehear the case meant that the original ruling of the U.S. District Court in Mississippi throwing out the homeowners’ suit was reinstated. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the challenge means that the decision by U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. in Mississippi is final.
The Supreme Court did not issue written reasons for denying the rehearing request, just as the 5th Circuit’s announcement that it could not hear the case did not explain why eight judges recused themselves. In the past, however, circuit judges have recused themselves from hearing cases involving energy companies in which they own stock to avoid an appearance of impropriety.
Dissenting from the 5th Circuit ruling were Judges Eugene Davis, Carl Stewart and James Dennis — the three judges who issued the earlier ruling in favor of the homeowners.
In a separate 2007 case challenging a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency not to regulate greenhouse gases, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that global warming exists, is man-made and is a threat.
Defendants in the Mississippi lawsuit included Murphy Oil Co., UOP, Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron USA, ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, Foundation Coal Holdings, Honeywell International, International Coal Group, Massey Energy, Peabody Energy, Reliant Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The companies being sued argued there is no evidence linking their emissions to Katrina’s effects.