In a significant unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that property owners have a right under the Administrative Procedures Act to challenge an Environmental Protection Agency compliance order in court. In Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency the EPA issued a compliance order to the Sacketts, claiming that they had attempted to develop land for the construction of a home on wetlands by filling in part of their lot with dirt and rock. The compliance order directed the Sacketts to restore the site, or face $75,000.00 per day in fines.
However, there was no evidence of wetland conditions, and the home site was surrounded by other developed homes near Priest Lake in Idaho. When the Sacketts attempted to challenge the EPA’s action in Federal District Court and in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, their case was thrown out on the grounds that they had no claim until the EPA initiated enforcement proceedings. However, the Sacketts’ daily fines would continue to accrue, and could reach the millions of dollars before the EPA took enforcement action.
Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, concluded that the EPA’s compliance order was a final agency decision, and that the Sacketts had a right of judicial review without having to wait for enforcement proceedings by the EPA. Justice Alito, in a strongly worded concurring opinion, chastised the EPA and pleaded with congress to clarify the Clean Water Act’s definition of wetlands, which currently grants the EPA virtually unlimited jurisdiction over private property owners:
“In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, [the EPA’s] treatment is unthinkable. The Court’s decision provides a modest measure of relief. At least, property owners like petitioners will have the right to challenge the EPA’s jurisdictional determination under the Administrative Procedure Act. But the combination of the uncertain reach of the Clean Water Act and the draconian penalties imposed for the sort of violations alleged in this case still leaves most property owners with little practical alternative but to dance to the EPA’s tune.
Real relief requires Congress to do what it should have done in the first place: provide a reasonably clear rule regarding the reach of the Clean Water Act.”
It is hoped that the congress will heed the call, confirm our nation’s protection of private property rights, and reign in an out of control EPA. Kudos to the lawyers at Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the Sacketts in the United States Supreme Court. Without PLF’s support, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency would not have been won.