August 6, 2013

New CEQA opinion illustrates the justices’ divergent views concerning statutory interpretation

As noted in this Los Angeles Times article, in its opinion yesterday, the Supreme Court affirmed the opinion of the Court of Appeal that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Expo light rail line can be extended from Culver City to Santa Monica, over objections from a neighborhood group that the Environmental Impact Report required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was not adequate. This is perhaps good news for LA commuters. But what struck us was that the Court’s frequent unanimity was nowhere in evidence. Instead, the justices were divided over the proper approach to statutory interpretation and how much deference to afford to the lead agency.

The majority consisted of a three-justice lead opinion authored by Justice Werdegar (joined by Justices Kennard and Corrigan), combined with a concurring and dissenting opinion authored by Justice Liu (who dissented from the result). The remaining votes for affirmance came from a concurring and dissenting opinion authored by Justice Baxter, which was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Chin. Justice Baxter’s opinion strongly disagreed with the majority and favored an approach that emphasized the statute’s plain meaning. Justice Werdegar’s opinion, on the other hand, revealed a greater willingness to fashion rules interpreting CEQA, and to look to the policy of environmental protection underlying the statute, rather than solely at its plain language.

We previously discussed the justices’ philosophical differences over statutory interpretation here, when we discussed Daily Journal reporter Emily Green’s useful insights on the topic. Yesterday’s opinion seems consistent with Green’s observations.

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