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Supreme Court OKs completion of Mountain Valley gas pipeline

Zach Gibson
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline could resume immediately. In doing so, the court affirmed certain powers that Congress has over federal courts, and all but ensured quick completion of the natural gas pipeline.

The case involved an emergency challenge to the final stages of development of the 303-mile pipeline, which is to span from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia.

The pipeline is controversial, and over the past six years, various lower federal court decisions have interrupted and delayed its construction. In the current round of litigation, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order that temporarily blocked completion of the pipeline while the court reviewed Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management authorizations for the pipeline's completion.

This time, however, pipeline advocates had a new federal law on their side — and in an unusual place. Tucked into last month's deal to raise the debt ceiling and avoid default was a provision Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., insisted on in exchange for his support. In explicit terms, Congress not only approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline, but "Section 234" of the debt ceiling bill also took away the ability of federal courts to hear any remaining challenges to it. As for any challenge to the constitutionality of the provision, the bill gave the D.C. federal courts exclusive power to rule on any constitutional challenge.

Citing that law, lawyers for the pipeline asked the Supreme Court to vacate the lower court order and direct dismissal of the litigation. They argued that under the new law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals no longer has the power to hear the case. The federal government weighed in as well, supporting the pipeline's legal position.

And on Thursday, the Supreme Court, in an unsigned order, agreed, all but ensuring that the pipeline's completion will go forward.

The decision was a blow to the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups that had urged the court to uphold the temporary halt in pipeline completion. Lawyers for the groups cited an 1871 Supreme Court precedent that held that Congress can specify rules about how federal court cases should be heard and resolved, but it cannot dictate how federal courts should rule, as that would be an unconstitutional intrusion the separate powers of the judiciary and would allow Congress "to pick winners and losers" in litigation that before the federal courts.

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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.
Meghanlata Gupta