Update on "Climate Change" Litigation -- Vanishing Quorum

Readers may recall my post about the Fifth Circuit granting the petition for rehearing en banc in Comer v. Murphy Oil.  The case involves a lawsuit by property owners against some three dozen oil, coal, and chemical companies, alleging that the defendants' activities contributed to climate change and magnified the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and thus exacerbated the damage from the storm. The trial court dismissed the suit on political question and standing grounds.  On appeal, a panel of the 5th Circuit reversed last Fall, finding that the plaintiffs did have standing and that the political question doctrine did not apply.

The defendants filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which was granted, and set the case for oral argument next week.  But, the clerk recently sent a letter noting the cancellation of en banc oral arguments.  Apparently, since the en banc court was constituted, new circumstances have arisen that make it necessary for another judge to recuse, leaving only eight members of the court able to participate in the case. Consequently, said the clerk, the en banc court has lost its quorum. Seven members of the court had previously recused themselves from the case.

Several defendants have filed a motion arguing for a different reading of the rule regarding a quorum, and/or raising the argument that the district court's opinion ought to remain the controlling law of the case, rather than the panel's decision which was vacated by the en banc decision. The court has responded by asking for supplemental briefing on these issues. Specifically, the order invited the parties to address the matter “as they think appropriate” but specifically directed them to analyze the interplay between the following rules and statute in resolving the disposition of the appeal: Fed. R. App. P. 35(a), 28 U.S.C. §46 (c) and (d), Fed. R. App. P. 41 (a) and (d) (1), 5th Cir. Local Rule 41.3, and Fed. R. App. P. 2. The court also instructed the parties that they may consider the rulings of Chrysler Corp. v. United States, 314 U.S. 583 (1941) and North American Co. v. Securities & Exchange Comm’n, 320 U.S. 708 (1943) and the Rule of Necessity.

Presumably, three outcomes are possible:the court decides it actually does have a quorum and thus oral argument is rescheduled; the panel decision is reinstated by default (with an ensuing cert petition to the Supreme Court); or, the district court is affirmed without opinion.

Many observers had predicted that the en banc decision by the 5th Circuit would create a circuit split  with the 2d Circuit decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power. There, a two-judge panel reversed the lower court dismissing the case on political question grounds, and finding the plaintiffs had standing to assert nuisance claims (with a similar attenuated causation theory).  This presumably would have paved the way for Supreme Court cert review.  Of course, Justice Alito has recused himself in cases involving ExxonMobil due to his ownership of its stock, and  Justice Breyer has recused himself from cases involving BP.  Perhaps Justice Sotomayor would also recuse herself due to her participation in the Connecticut v. American Electric Power case when she was on the Second Circuit.  So any possible Supreme Court review may be complicated also by the recusal and quorum issues.

Stay tuned.  This one is getting even more interesting, if thatis possible.