Steve Chapman

There is something comical about the notion that Detroit has run roughshod over a state that regulates cars more strictly than any other state. California imposed the nation's first limits on auto emissions, back in 1966, years before the federal government did. Automakers already have to specially equip cars to sell them in California, which under federal law is empowered to impose stricter tailpipe rules than those in effect for the rest of the country.

In everything related to the automobile, the state government in Sacramento (and the electorate it represents) is more an accomplice than a victim. To start with, it owns and operates 37,000 vehicles, which may be the biggest fleet of vehicles on the road. It has built 50,000 miles of highways and freeways. Thanks to the activities of the auto industry, it collects billions of dollars every year in sales taxes, license and registration fees, and fuel levies.

But the irony is lost on Lockyer. As the car companies noted in their response to the complaint, the attorney general takes the view that California should be awarded money for "damages supposedly caused by the nuisance that the state itself has handsomely profited from and affirmatively helped create." It's the equivalent of Mary-Kate suing Ashley for the stresses of her acting career.

Fortunately, the lawsuit is not likely to succeed, since it asks judges to establish standards on auto emissions that legislators have refused to enact. Absent some arguable violation of the Constitution, courts are generally reluctant to impose their views on matters that elected bodies are perfectly capable of handling.

The attorney general's gripe, of course, is not that Congress and the president haven't acted on global warming, but that they haven't done what he wants. By going to court, he's trying to override the legitimate choices of democratically accountable lawmakers, replacing them with rule by judicial decree. Talk about a public nuisance.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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