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.