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Supreme Court delivers opinions affecting abortion rights, emissions standards and more

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered opinions today on several significant topics. It put an important EPA rule on hold. It invalidated the multi-billion-dollar opioid settlement. It weakened the SEC's regulatory ability. And it temporarily allowed abortions in Idaho for medical emergencies. Joining us now to talk about all of this is NPR legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg Nina. Welcome.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. So let's start with the EPA opinion. What did the court do?

TOTENBERG: The court blocked the EPA's good neighbor plan, which was adopted to carry out a 2015 law aimed at limiting ozone pollution. The law said that upwind states cannot have - that the upwind states have to have plans to make sure that the upwind pollution doesn't soil, essentially, the downwind states' air with ozone. And the Biden administration had a fairly detailed plan that gave the states the chance to draw their own plans, and if the plans weren't good enough, then the federal government imposed a plan.

Well, by a 5-4 vote, the court said that the emissions reduction standards that the government set were likely to cause irreparable harm to downwind states, unless the court halted the rule pending further review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. So basically, it neutered this law and said to the lower court, you take a more detailed look while time ticks on. Now, I would love to tell you more about this case, but I have to tell you there are hundreds of pages of decisions, and I am just back from the court. So if I make a mistake, dear listeners, it was an honest one (laughter).

MARTIN: OK. Well, yeah, so much to cover. OK. Let's just keep it moving. What about the opioid settlement? Why did the court invalidate it?

TOTENBERG: By a 5-4 vote, the justices threw out the bankruptcy settlement, which has been valued at six and $10 billion. Writing for the court majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that U.S. bankruptcy law doesn't afford bankruptcy courts the kind of power needed to block lawsuits against parties who haven't filed for bankruptcy. In this case, that's the Sacklers, who owned and control the board of - and did, you know, all of the marketing of opioids as oxycodone as not being addictive, when, in fact, it turned out to be highly addictive.

So there was this huge settlement. The states were desperate to get the money to care for people. But it's stuck in some people's craw that the Sacklers didn't have to give up most of their money, only about half or less. And today, the court sided with the people whose craws were stuck. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Kavanagh said that the ruling disrupts a deal that would have funneled money to communities and victims of the opioid crisis, and that the decision is wrong on the law and devastating for more than a hundred thousand opioid victims and their families. So the deal is off. That's it.

MARTIN: Just briefly, who were the dissenters?

TOTENBERG: It's a very odd assortment. It's Kavanaugh, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan.

MARTIN: Oh, really interesting. So not on the customary ideological lines that we're used to seeing so many things.

TOTENBERG: No.

MARTIN: OK, then this big SEC case. What happened there?

TOTENBERG: This is a very big deal, even though by the time I'm talking about it tonight, it'll sound very complicated. But this was a big deal, and the chief justice wrote the opinion. The court split along ideological lines, and it ruled that the SEC's use of in-house judges to levy fines violates the right to trial by jury. This was a case brought by George Jarkesy, a former conservative radio talk show host and hedge fund manager. After a fraud investigation by the SEC and an in-house evidentiary hearing conducted by an independent administrative law judge, the agency fined Jarkesy $300, ordered him to pay back nearly $700,000 in ill-gotten gains.

MARTIN: After I think he - fined $300,000, correct - $300,000?

TOTENBERG: Right, $300,000, and barred him from various activities in the securities industry. So the court said he's entitled to a right by jury trial. And in doing that, it blew up something called the public rights doctrine, which says that, in a case like this, what we really care about is that the securities industry is properly policed. And to do that, we don't have to have private suits go in every case when there's civil suits to federal courts.

Well, that doctrine got completely blown up today. And Justice Sotomayor spoke very passionately about the court's disregard for precedent, as she called it, in an unusual statement, oral statement from the bench. There's one fly in this ointment, as far as I could tell. And this is about an inch thick, this opinion. There is no limit to the right to a jury trial. And at the moment, there are 1,500 administrative law judges throughout the government who make decisions in over a half-million hearings and appeals each year just at the Social Security Administration. So this could really make a big, big difference.

MARTIN: And finally, we got a sense of what the court might do yesterday when it erroneously posted the abortion decision on its website. Did today's opinion differ at all from that one? And remind us of what it's all about.

TOTENBERG: Well, it got posted on the court's website, and it's an abortion opinion. And then it was unposted. And some people thought that was a leak. It wasn't a leak. It was a screw-up. Someone in the publications office mistakenly posted the opinion, then quickly took it down. This is a case that involves the Emergency Medical Treatment Act, EMTALA, which requires hospitals to stabilize all emergency patients, and if they can't do that, to transfer them to another hospital that can.

The court, in a 6-3 opinion, temporarily allowed abortions in medical emergencies in Idaho, which had banned emergency abortions, not just to save the life of - the state law says you can do that to save the life of the mother, but not to preserve her health under very serious circumstances. And the court said that a lot of the people who brought the case were wrong and didn't have standing and sent the case back to the lower courts.

So we don't know what the ultimate decision will be. But Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson gave an impassioned statement from the bench, in which she said by sort of putting off a definitive decision, the court was basically whistling past the graveyard of lots of women who could eventually, and now, even, with confusion still arising, have to have - be denied an emergency abortion and suffer the consequences.

TOTENBERG: I'm sure we'll hear much more later on All Things Considered. That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.