Supreme Court sides with landowners against EPA

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in favor of landowners in their battle against the Environmental Protection Agency. In a unanimous decision, the court agreed that an Idaho couple can sue to challenge a federal government compliance order under the Clean Water Act. The ruling was seen as a victory for the “little guy,” but was also hailed by business groups and corporations.

Five years ago Mike and Chantell Sackett purchased a 0.63-acre lot near Priest Lake in the Idaho panhandle with intentions to build a home. Preparing the site for construction meant three days of hauling fill dirt to the lot in 2007 before officials from the EPA and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers ordered a halt to the activity. The feds suspected the site was a wetlands.

Six months later the EPA sent the Sacketts a “compliance order” stating the land must be restored as a wetlands before the couple could apply for a building permit. Failure to comply with the order could put the Sacketts in jeopardy of fines as much as $37,500 per day.

The Sacketts’ case reached the Supreme Court because the EPA contends – and lower courts agreed – that individuals do not have the right to go to court to challenge the agency’s wetlands decision. Specifically, the Sacketts had requested a hearing to contest the EPA’s order that their lot was a wetlands, but that request was turned down by a federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco who said the compliance order was similar to a warning to the landowners that they were violating the law. The appeals court said the Sacketts weren’t entitled to a hearing under the law until the agency had imposed a fine.

Those decisions left the Sacketts in limbo. They could do nothing with their lot, or start building and face ruinous fines. They chose to appeal their case to the Supreme Court.

Writing the opinion for the high court, Justice Antonin Scalia concluded the Sacketts may bring a civil lawsuit under the Administrative Procedures Act to challenge the EPA’s order. He said that since the EPA’s decision was final and the couple faced potential large fines, they had no other adequate remedy but to bring a civil suit. Scalia said the Clean Water Act does not prevent judicial review of such orders.

Specifically, the court did not reach the broader question of whether the EPA’s order violated the constitutional right of due process. It only ruled that the Administrative Procedures Act, which provides certain rules for federal regulatory agencies, applied.

Scalia said the Clean Water Act was not “uniquely designed to enable the strong-arming of regulated parties into ‘voluntary compliance’ without the opportunity for judicial review.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said allowing property owners to sue was better than nothing, but urged Congress to adopt new legislation clarifying the reach of the Clean Water Act.

The attorney for the Sacketts, Damien Schiff, said, “EPA is not above the law. That’s the bottom line with today’s ruling. This is a great day for Mike and Chantell Sackett, because it confirms that EPA can’t deny them access to justice. EPA can’t repeal the Sackett’s fundamental right to their day in court.”

In a statement issued after the Supreme Court’s decision was announced, American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said his organization was pleased with the ruling favoring property owners.

“We agree with Justice Alito’s concurring opinion that the federal government has too often ‘put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of the Environmental Protection Agency’s employees.’ We also agree with Justice Alito that, while allowing landowners to sue is a start, Congress needs to clarify the reach of the Clean Water Act.”

Stallman said Farm Bureau is optimistic the decision will help “curtail EPA’s efforts to illegally expand its regulatory jurisdiction over farming and other land-based activities. At the very least, landowners have another tool to hold EPA accountable.”

The Supreme Court case is Sackett v EPA, No. 1—1062.

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judi warren    
senecaville ohio  |  March, 22, 2012 at 06:27 AM

Three cheers for the Sacketts. It's about time the EPA lost a case. They need to wipe out the EPA and start over again.

Mike in PA    
Harrisburg, PA  |  March, 22, 2012 at 09:14 AM

All the Sacketts have won is the right to sue the EPA. How many out there actually believe the Sacketts will win? Not me. They will lose locally and on appeal to the 9th. So it will be another 3 - 5 years and they will be right back to the Supreme Court...assuming they have the resources to pay all the attorney's fees. Bottom line: EPA still wins.

Clint Shults    
Meeker, CO  |  March, 22, 2012 at 09:17 AM

Wow, Hope they are compensated for their lost time by mabe reversing the fines back on the EPA. That would make it a better day.

Iowa  |  March, 22, 2012 at 09:47 AM

The EPA is out of control and has been for several years. Don't get me wrong, they have a place however they have way OVER TAKEN what the original purpose was/indended to be. It is time the EPA's funding starts to be cut and cut big!

USA  |  March, 22, 2012 at 10:34 AM

One of several good ideas I've heard is to remake the federal districts to eliminate the 9th circuit entirely.

John Barlow    
central Texas  |  March, 22, 2012 at 02:52 PM

Hell yea!!! One for the people!!!

Colo  |  March, 22, 2012 at 03:21 PM

Jason is right. The EPA wants control over every hollow that fills up after a heavy storm, every irrigation canal seep, etc. They're getting too big for their britches. Hopefully, Damion Schiff is a good enough lawyer to beat them at their own game. It almost seems like there is a bounty awarded for real or imagined transgressions that EPA employees "discover" and report. Good luck to the Sacketts!

Texas  |  March, 22, 2012 at 05:55 PM

It about time to eliminate the EPA

Craig Hendy    
Northern California  |  March, 22, 2012 at 06:10 PM

Three cheers for the Sacketts, Damion Schiff and the Pacific Legal Foundation. Finally someone has helped to make the EPA accountable to the Constitution and give us hope to be able to challenge their rulings. They have disgarded private property rights for far too long. The Pacific Legal Foundation is a non-profit legal firm fighting to protect private property rights of owners. Congratulations on a landmark case!

Shirle Pfister    
Pensacola, FL  |  March, 23, 2012 at 08:33 AM

It is about time the people are relieved from the arrogance of government created EPA. In Pensacola on a barrier island, Perdido Key, the Corp of Engineers and the EPA allowed a marina to dredge the bottom of the marina and use the contaminated soil as topsoil to elevate the property and in doing so the spoil flowed downhill to residential property. After complaints to over forty different government persons and departments, including a physical appearance in the office of Enviromental Justice in Washington DC, nothing was done, no stabilization of the ground, no answers for the residential land owners.

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