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News brief: election law case, climate case ruling, Hong Kong anniversary

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court is taking on a case next term that could radically reshape federal elections.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Many legal scholars are warning that depending on how the court rules, it could lead to more attempts by Republican state lawmakers to subvert elections, including the 2024 presidential election.

MARTIN: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering all this, and he joins me now. Hey, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Tell us about the case that's at the center of all this.

WANG: Well, Republican state lawmakers in North Carolina brought this case, and they're trying to bring back a voting map of congressional districts that state courts threw out after finding partisan gerrymandering that violates North Carolina's state constitution. And these Republican lawmakers are basing their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on this controversial fringe legal theory. It's called the independent state legislature theory.

MARTIN: And what does that mean?

WANG: Well, this theory is based on a very controversial reading of the U.S. Constitution. It basically claims that the Constitution gives state legislatures the power to control how elections for Congress and for president are run without any limits from state constitutions or state courts. Now, there are federal laws passed by Congress and the U.S. Constitution that legislatures have to keep in mind still, but Vikram Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, told me this theory, if endorsed by the Supreme Court, could give legislatures a lot of unchecked power over federal elections. Let's listen.

VIKRAM AMAR: It is really a grave danger to American democracy to say that state legislatures are free from state constitutions to do whatever they want. State constitutions are an important source of American democracy limits and rights, and I think it would be terrible if the U.S. Supreme Court distorted federalism to reject that very important premise.

MARTIN: So tell me if I'm wrong, Hansi, but does this mean - I mean, this could potentially take away independent oversight of elections from state courts and then put it in the hands of some of the very people who could be on the ballot in the elections?

WANG: Yes, potentially. And if the Supreme Court endorses this theory, another possibility is that it could be easier in some states for members of Congress of a certain party to stay in power, with state lawmakers putting in place maps of congressional districts that state courts find are gerrymandered to give one party an unfair advantage during elections. And, you know, we've heard a version of this theory during the January 6 committee's hearings, when they've talked about the fake elector scheme that former President Donald Trump supporters were trying to carry out to change the outcome of the 2020 election. And a potential Supreme Court endorsement of this theory could provide the legal justification for another similar attempt.

So this case could have major implications for the 2024 presidential election because some states with Republican-controlled legislatures may see the Supreme Court's potential support for the theory as an invitation to set new election rules that take power away from voters when picking electors for the next Electoral College.

MARTIN: So they could potentially pick their own slate of electors.

WANG: Exactly.

MARTIN: Do we know when the Supreme Court is going to rule on this?

WANG: We don't know exactly. The court is scheduled to hear this case in their next term, which starts in October. But we may not get a ruling until a year from now. And I should note that four conservatives on the court - Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh - have signaled they're interested in this theory. And based on a dissenting opinion three of them put out back in March, for emergency request in this case, Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas signaled they would likely side with the North Carolina Republican lawmakers' support for this theory.

MARTIN: It would have such huge consequences. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thank you, Hansi.

WANG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. In one of its final decisions of the term, the Supreme Court stripped away some of the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate emissions.

MARTINEZ: In the 6-3 decision, the conservative majority says that the EPA does not have authorization from Congress to push the country away from power plants that burn fossil fuels. This removes one key tool the agency had to try and reduce fossil fuel emissions.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Laura Benshoff with us to talk about the consequences of all the things. Hi, Laura.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTIN: So the case was West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency. Did this ruling strike down a precedent?

BENSHOFF: Not explicitly, but environmental law experts I talked to said precedent has definitely been eroded here. So what the ruling did was strike down the legal basis for an old climate policy, one that wasn't live. It was the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan. And back in 2015, the EPA had tried to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants using that plan at the state level, basically directing states away from coal-fired plants towards other forms of power that emit less carbon dioxide. And the Supreme Court opinion yesterday said that was an overreach. The EPA does not have that authority to decide how power is generated in this country. That belongs with Congress.

And this undermines the independence the courts have been giving federal agencies for decades to interpret the laws that give them power. I talked to Carol Browner, who's a former EPA administrator and Obama administration climate official, about this.

CAROL BROWNER: There's a reason Congress gives authority to regulatory agencies to address pressing problems. It is complicated. Climate change is complicated. The science is hard. Technologies are complicated. And, you know, Congress doesn't want to do it.

BENSHOFF: Of course, the conservative justices and the states they sided with say this just restores things to the way they should be, that this power belongs in Congress' hands.

MARTIN: So President Biden has made climate change, you know, a central part of his agenda. So what options does this ruling leave him with?

BENSHOFF: You know, without congressional action, without sweeping climate change legislation, the White House was always going to have a harder time to try to drastically cut emissions through regulation alone. And this ruling just curbs further what regulations can do in this key polluting sector. You know, the country needs to move away from burning fossil fuels for transportation, for power generation, if it's going to have a chance of keeping warming down and keeping our promises. But one upside of this ruling, says Jody Freeman, founding director of Harvard Law School's environmental law and policy program, is that it doesn't rule out all tools.

JODY FREEMAN: They did go out of their way in the opinion to say, we're simply - we're ruling out the Clean Power Plan, but we're not tying EPA's hands in any other specific way. So I thought that was the silver lining in the opinion.

BENSHOFF: In a statement from the White House, President Biden called this decision devastating, but he vowed to keep using the power of his office to bring emissions down.

MARTIN: So where does this leave the EPA exactly?

BENSHOFF: The Biden administration has been waiting for this decision to get a clearer picture of what its EPA can do, and it still has options 'cause a lot of tools were not taken off the table. They could encourage coal plants, for example, to burn a less-emitting fuel, alongside coal, that would bring down greenhouse gases. They still have quite a few options. And in a statement, the EPA administrator, Michael Reagan, said the agency will move forward with implementing environmental standards that meet its obligation to protect all people and all communities from environmental harm.

MARTIN: NPR's Laura Benshoff. Thank you, Laura. We appreciate this.

BENSHOFF: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Twenty-five years ago, Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, and today Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in the territory to mark the occasion.

MARTINEZ: Hong Kong was a British colony for more than a century and a half, and when the U.K. gave it back, China promised that Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. Well, we're officially halfway there, and the level of that autonomy is very much in question.

MARTIN: Indeed. To help us understand where things stand today, we're joined by NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So people who follow China closely, as you do, often have to read between the lines of what Xi Jinping says at important moments. This is definitely one of them, right? So walk us through why Xi Jinping was there and what was said and wasn't said.

RUWITCH: Right. Yeah. The fact that he was there was important. So Xi Jinping attended a joint event, right? It was a commemoration of the anniversary and the swearing-in ceremony for Hong Kong's new chief executive, John Lee. And as I said, Xi's appearance was significant, and it was significant for a couple reasons. First, he hasn't been outside of China until this trip for the entire pandemic. So he obviously felt that this symbolic event was important. You know, he was in Hong Kong five years ago for the 20th anniversary of the handover.

The city has been through a lot of turmoil since then. In 2019, there were huge marches and protests that were sometimes violent against the government. In 2020, Beijing imposed the national security law that completely changed the political landscape in Hong Kong. Then they've been dealing with COVID, which has hammered the economy. So, you know, today Xi Jinping had a speech, and he seemed to really drive home the point that Hong Kong's political development would be wholly on Beijing's terms. Here's a clip from the speech through a translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) People have learned the hard way that Hong Kong must not be destabilized and cannot afford to see chaos. There is extensive consensus that no time should be lost in Hong Kong's development and that all interference should be removed.

MARTIN: Interference - that word's doing a lot of work there, as they say. What's he referring to?

RUWITCH: He seems to be pointing to political obstacles to that vision, whether it's domestic political obstacles or foreign interference. This anniversary is important to China on two fronts, one of which has to do with foreign interference. You know, Hong Kong's return to China in '97 was a big milestone in terms of putting an end to what China calls the century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and, in the words of the party, standing up as a nation. It's also been critical - that is, Hong Kong has been critical - in helping the country get wealthier and stronger over the past 25 years. It's played an outsized role as kind of a window for trade and financial transactions between China and the rest of the world.

MARTIN: Politically, though, we know a lot has clearly changed in Hong Kong because of all the reasons you outlined above. Has China then reneged on its promises to allow Hong Kong a certain degree of autonomy?

RUWITCH: Well, there is no doubt that individual freedoms have been curtailed in Hong Kong over the past couple years. The Chinese government says there is still a great degree, a great deal of autonomy there. I was there a few weeks ago. It looks the same; it feels very different in some respects, I have to say. You know, people were wary about talking about politics with me at newspaper stands. There are certain papers you can't get because they've closed. Pro-democracy politicians used to be really accessible. Many are in jail now. Others are afraid to meet. So critics say the pillars of what made Hong Kong Hong Kong are being dismantled, things like freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

MARTIN: NPR's John Ruwitch covers China. Thank you so much, John. We appreciate you.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.