Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Supreme Court Cleans the Air: Legal and Scientific Standards for Argument in Massachusetts V. EPA

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Supreme Court Cleans the Air: Legal and Scientific Standards for Argument in Massachusetts V. EPA

Article excerpt

Introduction

Environmentalists celebrated the Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (549 U.S. 497 [2007]) decision as an important step in combating global warming (Barnes and Eilperin 2007; Egelko 2007). For the first time, the Supreme Court reviewed EPA's responsibility to address global warming under the Clean Air Act (CAA). Massachusetts et al. (the petitioners) brought suit against the EPA (the respondents) for not properly enforcing the CAA, arguing the EPA neglected to act on requests to regulate tailpipe emissions of new American-manufactured automobiles. Specifically, the petitioners argued the EPA's failure to render a judgment on climate change science, thus delaying action on the grounds of scientific uncertainty, undermined the mandates of the CAA to regulate air pollutants. Rendering judgments on scientific arguments, especially a complex issue such as climate change that engages numerous scientific communities and requires legislative and legal action to address, becomes even more complicated when non-scientists are asked to evaluate such arguments within a legal context that is often incongruous with the subtleties and uncertainties of scientific inquiry. As lawyers and judges concern themselves with putatively legal judgment and scientists adhere to the norms of scientific argument for the purpose of epistemic production, argumentation scholars are uniquely positioned at the intersections of these distinct argument spheres where competing norms are often hashed out in specific settings.

While some argumentation scholars express some misgivings about exporting legal understandings of proof burdens to non-legal argument spheres (Gaskins 1992; Godden and Walton 2007; Hahn and Oaksford 2007), I argue the Supreme Court's assessment of standing, a legal requirement for a petitioner's claim to be justiciable, in Massachusetts v. EPA demonstrates how fissures between scientific and legal argument spheres can yield judgments that accommodate the complexities and uncertainties of scientific argument. Determining standing rests on an amalgam of proof burdens, statutory constraints, and, in this case, competing standards of legal and scientific argumentation. The question of standing, as with many other dimensions animating this case, engages concepts that lie at the heart of argumentation studies. For example, adjudicating uncertainty within the context of judgment regarding scientific matters (Cummings 2009; Goodnight 1982; Paroske 2009) and tracing the migration of arguments across argument spheres (Goodnight 1982; Toulmin 1964) are both central to this case and to the determination of standing. Because, as Sunstein (1992) notes, standing has a complicated legal history and the standards for determining it remain open for interpretation, this essay explores how the Massachusetts v. EPA ruling frames standing as a legal proof burden compatible with the norms of scientific evidence. Furthermore, studying the Supreme Court's engagement with scientific argument and standing is uniquely important, as their ruling on navigating scientific argument within a legal format will have substantial influence on subsequent legal assessments of science.

Tschida (2012) argues that Massachusetts v. EPA helped resolve questions of scientific uncertainty by ruling the petitioners possessed standing. However, his engagement with standing focuses on legal explanations rather than more theoretical treatments of standing in resolving the differences between scientific and legal norms of argumentation. Therefore, this essay helps argumentation scholars better understand the role of standing in navigating scientific uncertainty and in adjudicating differences in legal and scientific standards of argumentation. This case demonstrates how characterization of harm recalibrates proof burdens when scientific arguments are evaluated within a legal framework. My analysis of the Massachusetts v. …

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