In a victory in the battle against the EPA’s overreach this morning the United States Supreme Court ruled on the Sackett v. EPA case in favor of the plaintiffs. The case was originally brought by an Idaho couple over the right to go to court to challenge an EPA order that blocked construction of their new home.
The couple had graded a small lot for the new house and was ordered by the EPA under the Clean Water Act to fill in the lot, replace vegetation and monitor the land for three years or face a $37,500 penalty for each day of violation. The couple then sought court review of the order but they were denied.
Today the Supreme Court ruled that the couple does have a right to go to court to get a pre-enforcement review of the order and they do not have to wait for the EPA to sue them for violating the order in order to raise their claims. While EPA still has the power to issue these kinds of orders, and most of them will never be challenged, the ruling makes judicial review possible and will help restrain the abuse of EPA’s power. The decision could restrain EPA overreach under other environmental statutes as well.
Of note was Justic Alito’s concurring opinion on the case which agreed completely with the decision but also noted that the reach of the Clean Water Act is unclear. He states that any piece of land that is wet at least part of the year is in danger of being classified by the EPA as wetlands and he says that real relief requires Congress to clarify the rule.
Real relief requires Congress to do what it should have done in the first place: provide a reasonably clear rule re-garding the reach of the Clean Water Act. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it provided that the Act covers “the waters of the United States.” 33 U. S. C. §1362(7). But Congress did not define what it meant by “the waters of the United States”; the phrase was not a term of art with a known meaning; and the words themselves are hopelessly in determinate. Unsurprisingly, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers interpreted the phrase as an essentially limitless grant of authority.