There is legal chaos in the national Superfund. The Supreme Court reversed decisions of eleven federal circuit courts in United States v. Atlantic Research Corp. There is no instance in modern Supreme Court history where the Court reversed every federal circuit court in the country, as it did in Atlantic Research. The Supreme Court’s reversal was through a unanimous decision. This was extraordinary: It not only reversed the entire legal interpretation of one of America’s most critical statutes, but also re-allocated billions of dollars among private parties.
The Supreme Court, when it rendered its decision, seemed to be rectifying a bottleneck in Superfund remediation of hazardous waste. However, in the decade since this Supreme Court decision, several federal trial and circuit courts have circumvented the Supreme Court command. This article illustrates how the lower federal courts have done this without violating Article III of the Constitution, by re-defining a one-word term.
The practical impact has been chaos in hazardous substance remediation across the U.S., affecting an estimated 600,000 contaminated waste sites. There are huge dollar impacts: addressing the 350,000 remaining contaminated sites in the U.S. would cost up to one-quarter trillion dollars, or an expenditure of $6-8 billion annually.
This Article analyzes how the lower federal courts have circumvented the Supreme Court decisions, with particular focus on decisions and legal prestidigitation in the most recent four years. This lower court inversion of the law is without much basis in law, and resurrects exactly what the Supreme Court thought it had overruled unanimously. What transpired in enforcement in the lower courts is not what the Supreme Court’s opinion contemplated. This Article examines the method by which the lower federal courts have created an ongoing legal mechanism to circumvent the most important Supreme Court holding in a critical area of the economy.
Superfund Chaos Theory: What Happens When the Lower Federal Courts Don't Follow the Supreme Court,
Mich. J. Envtl. & Admin. L.
Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjeal/vol6/iss1/4