Justices likely to let Mexican trucks in U.S.

Supreme Court questions environmental lawsuit that blocked NAFTA rule

April 22, 2004|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Mexican trucks and buses soon may be rolling throughout California and the Southwestern states, with the backing of President Bush and the Supreme Court.

Bush administration lawyers urged the high court yesterday to lift a court order that has barred Mexican trucks from going beyond a 20-mile border zone, and none of the justices took sharp exception during the hourlong argument.

If the Supreme Court sides with the administration, it could clear the way for thousands of Mexican trucks to deliver goods within the United States.

That prospect - one that worries environmentalists, safety advocates and U.S. truckers - has loomed since 2001 when the president announced that he planned to lift the long-standing ban on Mexican trucks to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which seeks to create a free-trade zone between Canada, Mexico and the United States.

The issue has been argued for nearly a decade, and has aligned protectionist groups with health and safety organizations in a coalition that has so far succeeded in blocking the entry of the Mexican trucks, which they say could number 34,000.

An international arbitration panel had ruled in 2001 that the United States must abandon its barriers "with respect to cross-border trucking services" and passenger buses, and Bush said he intended to comply.

But before he could do so, opponents sued to block the action.

Previous opposition to the Mexican trucks has been based on safety concerns, because many of the vehicles didn't meet U.S. safety standards.

But the lawsuit before the high court focused on the environmental impact. The opponents said the older trucks and buses in use in Mexico would belch dirty air and add to the pollution problems in California, Texas and the Southwest.

They won a victory before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which blocked Bush from proceeding. Its judges posed the issue as a clash between the international treaty and U.S. environmental standards.

They said the U.S. Department of Transportation, which enforces safety standards, had failed to conduct an environmental impact study on the likely effect of the Mexican trucks.

But Bush administration lawyers called that ruling wrong during yesterday's argument. The Transportation Department enforces safety rules, not pollution standards, they said.

The agency's officials "have no authority to deny [admission of Mexican trucks] based on environmental concerns," argued Edwin Kneedler, a deputy U.S. solicitor general.

Beyond that, the president has the power to enforce treaties without seeking permission of the agencies, he added.

The justices seemed to agree. "It seems to me a very doubtful proposition" that the regulations governing the Transportation Department would stop the president from enforcing the treaty, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist commented.

Under the free-trade treaty, "Mexicans and Americans are to be treated alike," said Justice Stephen G. Breyer. He, too, wondered how safety regulations in U.S. law gave the appeals court reason to block the flow of Mexican trucks.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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