Sensing a chance to fundamentally reshape the nation’s highest court, environmental groups have begun to prime their advocacy game in support of President Obama’s looming Supreme Court nominee.
Activists say the high court may end up deciding the president’s energy and environment legacy. Justices earlier this month, for example, threw the White House and state greenhouse gas reduction plans into chaos by blocking U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
The late Antonin Scalia, a legal conservative champion, was one of the five justices to vote for staying EPA’s rule pending ongoing litigation. Observers saw the move as a signal the Supreme Court could ultimately overturn the landmark rule.
Now that Scalia has died, however, environmental groups and other Obama supporters see an opening to shift the court’s balance toward a more liberal bent.
Lobbying shops have since gone into overdrive, with the president pledging to send the Senate a Supreme Court nominee despite Republican demands he leave the decision to his successor.
Environmental groups are among the many left-leaning interests pushing for the Senate to hold hearings and vote on the coming Supreme Court nominee.
Glenn Sugameli, a senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, told E&E Daily he has been working "full time" on the Supreme Court nomination battle since news of Scalia’s death went public.
"Clearly, this is going to be a major issue for however long it takes to fill the seat," Sugameli said. "This is something that needs to be done."
Without a replacement for Scalia, Supreme Court tie votes would leave lower court rulings in place, which could benefit the president’s agenda. Still, Sugameli said the high court was necessary to clear up conflicting rulings.
"The Court being now split 4-4 could lead to paralysis," Sugameli said. "It doesn’t just leave lower court decisions alone. It leaves competing lower court decisions alone."
Sugameli is also founder of Judging the Environment, a research project of Defenders of Wildlife that advises environmental groups on federal judicial nominations.
Since Scalia’s passing, he has been sending emails to members of the press and supporters and compiling newspaper editorial board statements in support of Senate action on Obama’s upcoming nominee. Sugameli has also been monitoring public opinion polls and senators’ statements on a potential Scalia replacement.
"So many environmental issues are decided in the courts, whether they’re enforced or upheld," Sugameli said. "The environmental groups need a very reasonable judge, someone who will enforce and uphold the laws that are on the books."
‘Stakes could not be higher’
Other groups have likewise been revving up their lobbying machines in response to the Supreme Court vacancy.
On Friday, the League of Conservation Voters sent members an action alert requesting they tell Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) not to block Obama’s pick for the high court.
The environmental group is also pushing its message on social media and plans to lobby lawmakers directly as action heats up on Capitol Hill.
LCV President Gene Karpinski wrote an op-ed last week saying the group planned to engage its 1.3 million members to contact their senators on the issue.
Karpinski, writing in the online platform Medium, cited recent victories for the environmental movement — including Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate accord.
"The stakes truly could not be higher for the Supreme Court battle that lies ahead, which is why the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) is already gearing up and intends to engage in this fight more aggressively than any past judicial nominations," Karpinski wrote.
Another environmental group, Earthjustice, plans to contact supporters on the Supreme Court battle and has also been reaching out to potential allies through social media.
Marty Hayden, vice president of policy and legislation for the group, told E&E Daily he would be lobbying senators on the high court nominee.
"We will be joining with many other groups across the spectrum in support of filling this crucial vacancy," Hayden said, adding that "it’s not really tenable for the Supreme Court to languish like this for this long."
Hayden noted: "If McConnell follows through on his threat, that would leave us without a full Court well into the next term. That would be completely unprecedented."
Conservatives seek to bolster GOP opposition
While environmentalists and other liberal supporters of the president will keep making a case to replace Scalia now, conservative groups are increasingly pushing Republican senators to hold firm.
Lobbyists for Heritage Action for America, an advocacy group with ties to the Heritage Foundation, have been in discussions with Senate aides about an expected replacement to fill Scalia’s seat.
"Right now, things are in pretty good shape. It’s just making sure that this doesn’t become a political liability for them [Senate Republicans], which it shouldn’t," said Dan Holler, vice president of communications and government relations for the group. "By and large, the position by Senate Republicans to have a nominee wait until after the next election is becoming the position."
Heritage Action has also been active on social media and has emailed supporters to gin up support for having senators wait until after the November elections to replace Scalia.
"If there is one thing that can cut through the clutter of a presidential election, it’s the Supreme Court. Conservative activists are already in tune and engaged," Holler said.
Others in the conservative political realm have also begun to juice up their advocacy work in preparation of the high court pick.
Last week, FreedomWorks sent an action alert with a message opposite to LCV’s. The conservative group urged members to tell McConnell to block any Obama Supreme Court pick.
By the end of the week, FreedomWorks members had sent the Senate leader’s office more than 15,000 messages, according to spokesman Jason Pye.
"We are currently gathering petition signatures to deliver to Leader McConnell and Chairman Grassley’s offices, perhaps others who may be on the fence, to show that conservatives want to protect Justice Scalia’s legacy," Pye said in an email.
GOP senators who may sway from the party’s stance by calling for hearings and votes on a high court pick can expect to hear from FreedomWorks.
"We’re tracking every Republican senators’ public statements on this. If we get the impression that they’re going soft, they’re going to hear from the FreedomWorks community," Pye said.
With such passion on each side of the debate, one can expect the Supreme Court debate to consume lawmakers on Capitol Hill and affect pending work.
Sugameli said, "There will be a nominee, and there should be a hearing, and no matter what happens in committee, that nominee should have an up-or-down vote in the full Senate."