The NCSL Blog


By Lisa Soronen

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to get rid of numerous federal regulations adopted by the Obama administration.

Regulations desk tabImpossible, many say, but if there is one man who may be able to make this happen it is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Three of the most important regulations to state and local government were the subject of litigation likely headed to the Supreme Court before Trump was elected: the Clean Power Plan (CPP), President Obama’s signature climate change measure; the regulations defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), a significant term in the Clean Water Act defining the federal government’s jurisdiction to regulate water; and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) overtime regulations, which extends overtime pay to 4 million workers.

Numerous commentators, including myself, have noted the difficulty Trump will have personally undoing any of these regulations. So, despite his hostility towards them—and maybe even because of it—these regulations will probably still end up before the Supreme Court.

It is perhaps unfair to speculate how a Supreme Court justice might look at these regulations, which are all being challenged on different legal grounds, based solely on whether a justice is a conservative or a liberal. Nevertheless, these labels indicate general legal philosophies and leanings.       

Conservative justices—for a variety of reasons that may differ depending on the regulation—might generally be more likely to view these and other regulations with more hostility than liberal justices. A conservative justice is more likely to see any or all of these regulations as an attack on federalism or as an example of federal agency overreach. Regarding the CPP or the WOTUS rule in particular, a conservative justice may see these measures as part of a pro-environment policy agenda rather than as a manifestation of clear law.

While we don’t know who Trump will nominate to fill Scalia’s vacancy, all signs point toward Trump nominating, and the Senate ultimately confirming, a reliable conservative. But this nomination will not change the balance of the Supreme Court before Scalia died as a 5-4 conservative court with Kennedy in the middle.

So unless membership changes again soon on the Supreme Court the fate of these regulations may lie in the hands of a person as puzzling, powerful and unpredictable as Trump himself: Kennedy.    

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and is a frequent contributor on judicial issues to the NCSL Blog.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.