Supreme Court Sides With Property Owners Over EPAMarch 21, 2012
The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on March 21, ruling that property owners can sue to void compliance orders issued by the EPA immediately, rather than having to wait until the EPA decides to take the property owner to court for noncompliance. The decision makes clear access to courts is a proper response to “the strong-arming of regulated parties” by government agencies.
“The decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, opens the federal courthouse door to an Idaho couple who have a .63-acre parcel of property close to Priest Lake, and plan to build a house on it. EPA considered their property to be a “wetland,” and told them to stop the development, and restore the property to its former state — or face fines that the government said could reach $75,000 a day. The EPA acted under the Clean Water Act, and it insisted — with the approval of lower courts — that the couple could not sue to challenge the order and had to wait for court review at the option of EPA. That was the result the Court overturned in Sackett, et al., v. EPA, et al. (docket 10-1062).”1
In its opinion the Court made clear it was not deciding the merits of the case, it was only ensuring the Sacketts would have their day in court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a separate opinion that she had joined the Court’s opinion on the understanding that it left the decision in the underlying case up to the lower court.
“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.”2
The EPA issues nearly 3,000 administrative compliance orders a year that call on alleged violators of environmental laws to stop what they're doing and repair the harm they've caused. Major business groups, homebuilders, road builders and agricultural interests all joined the Sacketts in urging the court to make it easier to contest EPA compliance orders issued under several environmental laws earlier in the process.
1 Lyle Denniston, Opinion recap: Taking EPA to court, available at http://www.scotusblog.com/2012/03/opinion-recap-taking-epa-to-court/
This post was authored by GLLF staff attorney Emily Kelchen.