Monday, March 26, 2012

SCOTUS Rules In Sackett v. U.S. EPA Wetlands Case

Mar 21: In the U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 10-1062. Appealed from the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit [See WIMS 9/21/10]. Oral arguments were held January 9, 2012 [See WIMS 1/10/12]. The opinion was unanimous with two separate concurring opinions.
    Chantell and Michael Sackett own a small lot in a built-out residential subdivision that they graded to build a home. Thereafter, the Sacketts received an Administrative Compliance Order from EPA claiming that they filled a jurisdictional wetland without a Federal permit in violation of the Clean Water Act. At great cost, and under threat of civil fines of tens of thousands of dollars per day, as well as possible criminal penalties, the Sacketts were ordered to remove all fill, replace any lost vegetation, and monitor the fenced-off site for three years. The Sacketts were provided no evidentiary hearing or opportunity to contest the order. And, the lower courts have refused to address the Sacketts' claim that the lot is not subject to Federal jurisdiction. The questions presented to the Supreme Court were: Do Petitioners have a right to judicial review of an Administrative Compliance Order issued without hearing or any proof of violation under Section 309(a) (3) of the Clean Water Act?
    The district court granted the EPA's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss the Sacketts' claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Appeals Court ruled, "In conclusion, we hold that it is 'fairly discernable' from the language and structure of the Clean Water Act that Congress intended to preclude pre-enforcement judicial review of administrative compliance orders issued by the EPA pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 1319(a)(3). We further interpret the CWA to require that penalties for noncompliance with a compliance order be assessed only after the EPA proves, in district court, and according to traditional rules of evidence and burdens of proof, that the defendants violated the CWA in the manner alleged in the compliance order. Thus we do not see any sharp disconnect between the process given a citizen and the likely penalty that can be imposed under the CWA. Under these circumstances, preclusion of pre-enforcement judicial review does not violate the Sacketts' due process rights. The district court properly dismissed this case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction."
    The High Court said, "The particulars of this case flow from a dispute about the scope of 'the navigable waters' subject to this enforcement regime. Today we consider only whether the dispute may be brought to court by challenging the compliance order -- we do not resolve the dispute on the merits."
    Despite that fact the Supreme Court said, "The reader will be curious, however, to know what all the fuss is about" and cited its various cases regarding "navigable waters" including: United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc., 474 U. S. 121 (1985); Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook Cty. v. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U. S. 159 (2001); and Rapanos v. United States, 547 U. S. 715 (2006).
    In the opinion, the Supreme Court indicates in part, ". . .the Government notes that Congress passed the Clean Water Act in large part to respond to the inefficiency of then-existing remedies for water pollution. Compliance orders, as noted above, can obtain quick remediation through voluntary compliance. The Government warns that the EPA is less likely to use the orders if they are subject to judicial review. That may be true -- but it will be true for all agency actions subjected to judicial review. The APA's presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all. And there is no reason to think that the Clean Water Act was uniquely designed to enable the strong-arming of regulated parties into 'voluntary compliance' without the opportunity for judicial review -- even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within the EPA's jurisdiction. Compliance orders will remain an effective means of securing prompt voluntary compliance in those many cases where there is no substantial basis to question their validity."

    The High Court ruled, "We conclude that the compliance order in this case is final agency action for which there is no adequate remedy other than APA review, and that the Clean Water Act does not preclude that review. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."

    Justice Ginsburg in a concurring opinion said in part, "The Court holds that the Sacketts may immediately litigate their jurisdictional challenge in federal court. I agree, for the Agency has ruled definitively on that question. Whether the Sacketts could challenge not only the EPA's authority to regulate their land under the Clean Water Act, but also, at this pre-enforcement stage, the terms and conditions of the compliance order, is a question today's opinion does not reach out to resolve. Not raised by the Sacketts here, the question remains open for another day and case."
    In a lengthier concurring opinion, Justice Alito said, "The position taken in this case by the Federal Government -- a position that the Court now squarely rejects -- would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) employees. The reach of the Clean Water Act is notoriously unclear. Any piece of land that is wet at least part of the year is in danger of being classified by EPA employees as wetlands covered by the Act, and according to the Federal Government, if property owners begin to construct a home on a lot that the agency thinks possesses the requisite wetness, the property owners are at the agency's mercy. . . Allowing aggrieved property owners to sue under the Administrative Procedure Act is better than nothing, but only clarification of the reach of the Clean Water Act can rectify the underlying problem."
    Access the complete opinion and concurring opinions (click here). Access the transcript of the oral arguments (click here). Access the merit briefs and numerous amicus briefs filed in the case (click here). Access the SupCt docket in the case (click here). [#Water, #SCOTUS]

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