Justices appear sympathetic to Bush's Mexican truck stance

| 4/22/2004

At least three justices appeared to agree with the Bush administration’s desire to allow Mexican trucks to travel U.S. highways, even though an appeals court earlier ruled the administration didn’t perform effective environmental studies.

For the administration, the case is about preserving the president's authority to negotiate treaties – in this case, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

For environmentalists challenging the administration’s view, the case is about protecting Americans from smog caused by Mexican trucks that burn dirtier fuel. Opponents also say they want to protect motorists from trucks that don't meet U.S. safety standards and protect U.S. truckers' jobs.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist said April 21 the appeals court's ruling "seems a very doubtful proposition," according to news accounts.

Justice Antonin Scalia said DOT’s job was to be a safety regulator. He questioned why the agency should perform an environmental review just because it had decided Mexican trucks were safe.

Meanwhile, Justice David Souter said the DOT had discretion over trucks, based on safety, not environmental, factors. He wondered if the groups sought to "find a safety hook" to keep out older trucks to minimize environmental damage.

A decision is expected by July. Until then, Mexican truckers will continue to be restricted to a roughly 20-mile commercial zone north of the U.S.-Mexico border and forced to offload to U.S. carriers to get their goods to the country's interior.

In briefs filed with the court, U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, representing the Bush administration, urged the justices to throw out last year's decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

That court sided with the environmentalists, ruling that the Transportation Department had violated two federal laws — the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act — by failing to assess the environmental impact of allowing the Mexican truck fleet into America and by making it harder for states to comply with federal clean air standards.

The 9th Circuit ordered the department to begin the environmental assessment, which it did, while continuing to appeal. The study is expected to be completed within the next year.