Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Property Owners Win the Right to Take EPA to Court

In January, I wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court hearing Sackett v. EPA. On March 21, the Sacketts won their case. Landowners should be happy with this opinion. As the Wall Street Journal wrote, "these are hard times for economic liberty, but the [Court has] offered a modest reason to hope." One attorney wrote about the decision:
Justice Antonin Scalia found it easy to give Mike and Chantelle Sackett their day in court. Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court in the case of Sackett v. EPA, Justice Scalia said that the EPA could not find that the Sacketts had illegally filled wetlands on their property, order them to remove the fill, and then threaten them with penalties without allowing them to appeal the order. The outcome in the case had been widely predicted based on the sympathetic plight of the plaintiffs, which had moved the case into the mainstream media and the stump speeches of presidential candidates. When due process allows a driver to appeal a parking ticket before paying it, providing the Sacketts the opportunity to seek judicial review of EPA’s administrative enforcement order without having to wait for EPA to first sue them was not much of a stretch.
Justice Alito had asked during oral argument: "If you related the facts of this case as they come to us to an ordinary homeowner, don't you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can't happen in the United States?" This time, the Court was on the side of ordinary homeowners. Following this line of thought, another commentator described the potential property rights implications of the case:
The Court stressed that it was not deciding whether Michael and Chantell Sackett will win their court case, but only that they had a right to file it at their choosing, now that the EPA “compliance order” is final. The decision reflected the strongly negative reaction most of the Justices had to the denial of a right to sue when this case was argued in January. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who was among those protesting most strongly at that hearing, wrote a separate opinion Wednesday complaining that the scope of the Clean Water Act’s application to private property is unclear, and Congress or the EPA should move to clarify it. Alito also argued that the treatment of the Sacketts, and others denied a right to sue EPA, was “unthinkable” in a country that values due process.

When the Sacketts take the EPA to court, they are expected to argue that their property is not even a wetland. Stay tuned.