Best known as the leading judicial champion for equal rights for women, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also steadfastly supported safeguards for clean air and water.

For more than a quarter century, Justice Ginsburg could be found in the pro-environment majority on critical cases upholding federal authority to protect clean air, clean water, and public health. She was one of the five-vote Supreme Court majority which ruled in 2007 that the Clean Air Act could be used to control carbon dioxide from vehicle emissions. In 2011, she authored the decision which confirmed that ruling. Those decisions have helped sustain momentum toward cleaner vehicles and the phaseout of coal as an electric generating source, even through the successive rounds of legal and political debate since then.

Other key cases in which she voted to sustain critical environmental rules included the 2014 case in which the Court upheld Obama Administration controls on interstate air pollution and the 2020 case in which the Court held that pollution which travels to surface waters via groundwater can still violate the Clean Water Act. 

Today, every major clean water or air rule swiftly becomes the subject of litigation. This means there are always new lawsuits which can ultimately limit federal environmental protection authority. Several challenges to Trump Administration cutbacks of a broad range of environmental protections are making their way through the courts now. Justice Ginsburg’s loss raises the risk that our country may lose essential ground to pro-pollution forces — especially if she is quickly replaced by a pro-polluter jurist.

Natural Resources Defense Council president Gina McCarthy said of Ginsburg, “From her pathbreaking advocacy for gender equality to her relentless defense of democracy itself, Justice Ginsburg widened our vision of who we are, enlarged in law the values we share and raised, forever, the possibility of what we might become. Through her expansive mind, sound temperament and unwavering judicial integrity, she plied the Constitution as a living instrument of American life, lending it meaning in the life of us all.”

National League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski said, “Rest in power, Justice Ginsburg. A true hero. Our communities are safer, healthier and more free because of RBG. Congress must respect her dying wishes.

Karpinski’s last sentence references the furious political battle now underway over whether Justice Ginsburg’s seat should be filled by the current president and Senate or whether it would be fairer to wait for the outcomes of the election now in progress. President Trump has announced he will submit a nominee next week, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared the current Senate will vote on the nomination.

North Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis has already said he will support Trump’s nominee, without waiting to see who it will be — contradicting his own position in 2016, when he objected to President Obama filling the Supreme Court vacancy left by Antonin Scalia’s death more than eight months before that election. By contrast, Ginsburg died with 46 days to go. Whether or not a majority of the Senate votes to confirm a Trump nominee now, the Ginsburg vacancy again raises the stakes of this election for our environment.

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