Whitman v. American Trucking Assns., Inc.
531 U.S. 457 (2001)

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No. 99-1257. Argued November 7, 2000-Decided February 27, 2001*

Section 109(a) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator to promulgate national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for each air pollutant for which "air quality criteria" have been issued under § 108. Pursuant to § 109(d)(1), the Administrator in 1997 revised the ozone and particulate matter NAAQS. Respondents in No. 99-1257, private parties and several States (hereinafter respondents), challenged the revised NAAQS on several grounds. The District of Columbia Circuit found that, under the Administrator's interpretation, § 109(b)(1)-which instructs the EPA to set standards "the attainment and maintenance of which ... are requisite to protect the public health" with "an adequate margin of safety"-delegated legislative power to the Administrator in contravention of the Federal Constitution, and it remanded the NAAQS to the EPA. The Court of Appeals also declined to depart from its rule that the EPA may not consider implementation costs in setting the NAAQS. And it held that, although certain implementation provisions for the ozone NAAQS contained in Part D, Subpart 2, of Title I of the CAA did not prevent the EPA from revising the ozone standard and designating certain areas as "nonattainment areas," those provisions, rather than more general provisions contained in Subpart 1, constrained the implementation of the new ozone NAAQS. The court rejected the EPA's argument that it lacked jurisdiction to reach the implementation question because there had been no "final" implementation action.


1. Section 109(b) does not permit the Administrator to consider implementation costs in setting NAAQS. Because the CAA often expressly grants the EPA the authority to consider implementation costs, a provision for costs will not be inferred from its ambiguous provisions. Union Elec. Co. v. EPA, 427 U. S. 246,257, and n. 5. And since

*Together with No. 99-1426, American Trucking Associations, Inc., et al. v. Whitman, Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency, et al., also on certiorari to the same court.


§ 109(b)(1) is the engine that drives nearly all of Title I of the CAA, the textual commitment of costs must be clear; Congress does not alter a regulatory scheme's fundamental details in vague terms or ancillary provisions, see MCI Telecommunications Corp. v. American Telephone & Telegraph Co., 512 U. S. 218, 231. Respondents' arguments founder upon this principle. It is implausible that § 109(b)(1)'s modest words "adequate margin" and "requisite" give the EPA the power to determine whether implementation costs should moderate national air quality standards. Cf. ibid. And the cost factor is both so indirectly related to public health and so full of potential for canceling the conclusions drawn from direct health effects that it would have been expressly mentioned in §§ 108 and 109 had Congress meant it to be considered. Other CAA provisions, which do require cost data, have no bearing upon whether costs are to be taken into account in setting the NAAQS. Because the text of § 109(b)(1) in its context is clear, the canon of construing texts to avoid serious constitutional problems is not applicable. See, e. g., Miller v. French, 530 U. S. 327,341. pp.464-471.

2. Section 109(b)(1) does not delegate legislative power to the EPA.

When conferring decisionmaking authority upon agencies, Congress must lay down an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to act is directed to conform. J. W Hampton, Jr., & Co. v. United States, 276 U. S. 394, 409. An agency cannot cure an unlawful delegation of legislative power by adopting in its discretion a limiting construction of the statute. The limits that § 109(b)(1) imposes on the EPA's discretion are strikingly similar to the ones approved in, e. g., Touby v. United States, 500 U. S. 160, and the scope of discretion that § 109(b)(1) allows is well within the outer limits of the Court's nondelegation precedents, see, e. g., Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan, 293 U. S. 388. Statutes need not provide a determinate criterion for saying how much of a regulated harm is too much to avoid delegating legislative power. Pp.472-476.

3. The Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to consider the implementation issue under § 307 of the CAA. The implementation policy constitutes final agency action under § 307 because it marked the consummation of the EPA's decisionmaking process, see Bennett v. Spear, 520 U. S. 154. The decision is also ripe for review. The question is purely one of statutory interpretation that would not benefit from further factual development, see Ohio Forestry Assn., Inc. v. Sierra Club, 523 U. S. 726, 733; review will not interfere with further administrative development; and the hardship on respondent States in developing state implementation plans satisfies the CAA's special judicialreview provision permitting pre enforcement review, see id., at 737.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding
The non-delegation doctrine allows Congress to give agencies some discretion in setting regulations, but they may not consider financial effects when making environmental regulations.
Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency was tasked with creating National Ambient Air Quality Standards for the review of Whitman, the agency's Administrator, who had the power to revise them as needed. The American Trucking Association, Inc. argued that the EPA should have taken into account the financial impact of implementing these standards. It contended that the Clean Air Act contained no intelligible principle that the EPA could use in determining the NAAQs. While the lower court ruled that Congress had violated the non-delegation doctrine by granting its legislative power to Whitman under the Clean Air Act, it also held that the agency could avoid a constitutional violation if it used a limited interpretation of the potentially problematic provisions in the Act.



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The requirement of an intelligible principle does not compel Congress to set numerical guidelines for the EPA in order to avoid violating the non-delegation doctrine under Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution. This doctrine generally is applied narrowly, and similar language has been deemed sufficient to guide an agency decision-maker in the past. The agency should be allowed to have some discretion in setting the guidelines. However, the agency decision-maker does not have the discretion to consider the financial impact of its environmental regulations. The Clean Air Act contains no support for the view that Congress intended cost to be a relevant factor in the agency's determinations.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • David H. Souter


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)

Case Commentary

The non-delegation doctrine hardly ever succeeds in overturning a law, having been limited to situations in which Congress provides virtually limitless discretion and a complete lack of standards to guide agencies. Some level of vagueness and discretion is acceptable, since otherwise the legislative process would bog down in details better resolved by agencies with technical expertise. There is no clear breaking point at which the level of discretion is so great that the non-delegation doctrine is implicated, however.

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