Energy & Environment

Supreme Court sides with oil companies in Baltimore case

The Supreme Court on Monday backed a bid by major players in the oil and gas industry to undo a lower court’s decision that kept the city of Baltimore’s lawsuit against them in state court. 

The justices ruled 7-1 that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals erred in its decision that it lacked jurisdiction to consider certain grounds from the companies for bringing the case into federal court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the dissenting vote.

In the 2018 case, Baltimore alleged that production and misleading marketing of fossil fuels from defendants including Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron has exacerbated climate change.

Monday’s decision did not delve into those issues, as the court instead looked at whether the case should be heard in federal or state court.

The defendants sought to move the lawsuit from Maryland state court to federal court, a move that has been referred to as “forum shopping.”

Critics argue that corporate clients often do this, thinking they’ll have a better chance at winning in federal court.

The results could have implications on the numerous similar cases filed by other states and localities seeking climate damages. 

The opinion, penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, didn’t grant the industry’s request to decide on the matter of whether the case belongs in state or federal court, stopping short of backing its bid to move the case to federal court. 

It sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit for further proceedings.

Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the case, as he holds stock in ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66, both of which were also defendants. Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s participation in the case has come under scrutiny because her father was employed by Shell for many years.

The majority determined that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it only reviewed part of a district court’s decision to move the case to state court.

Justices said the appeals court was wrong in how it interpreted a provision of a law governing the appeals of rulings that move cases to state court.

“A party may assert multiple grounds for removing a case to federal court—as the defendants did here. Indeed, the general removal statute contemplates just this possibility when, in contrast, it speaks of actions ‘removed solely under’ the diversity jurisdiction statute,” the opinion reads.

They said that this contrasts with the provision in question, which “does not contain any comparable language like that limiting appellate review” to specific instances.

Sotomayor disagreed and wrote that as a result, the majority interpretation allows defendants to “sidestep” a bar on appellate review.

Updated at 12:34 p.m.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Climate change Fossil fuels Neil Gorsuch oil and gas Sonia Sotomayor
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