Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously sided with Mike and Chantell Sackett in a long–awaited ruling. The case — Sackett v. EPA — challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s broad authority to define “Waters of the United States” and the EPA’s argument that it had jurisdiction over private property ponds, puddles, and wetlands — even on residential–zoned lots.
The ruling found that the EPA’s expansive definition for “waters of the United States” is “inconsistent” with the laws set forth in the Clean Water Act, and the law extends only to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies of water that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right.”
In 2004, the EPA blocked the Sacketts from completing a home on their Idaho lot of less than an acre and issued the Sacketts massive fines, claiming their land was a “wetland” and was located near a navigable body of water. For the past 17 years, the Sacketts have been embroiled in a legal battle with the EPA, challenging the agency’s expansive definition of a “navigable waterway.”
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion, “First, this Court ‘require[s] Congress to enact exceedingly clear language if it wishes to significantly alter the balance between federal and state power and the power of the Government over private property.’”
Alito continued to criticize the EPA’s argument that its definition of “waters of the United States” potentially covers “all body of water” in the United States and is only prevented by its “significant nexus” test. “Yet the boundary between a ‘significant’ and an insignificant nexus is far from clear,” Alito wrote. “And to add to the uncertainty, the test introduces another vague concept—‘similarly situated’ waters—and then assesses the aggregate effect of that group based on a variety of open–ended factors that evolve as scientific understandings change.”
“This freewheeling inquiry provides little notice to landowners of their obligations under the CWA,” Alito concluded. “Facing severe criminal sanctions for even negligent violations, property owners are ‘left ‘to feel their way on a case–by–case basis.’”
The ruling is the second such loss for the EPA in as many years. Last year, the Supreme Court limited the agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
With today’s ruling, the Supreme Court has set a clear definition for “waters of the United States” and for the EPA’s jurisdiction over them. In addition, the ruling is expected to provide a template for future challenges to federal agencies who have used their alleged interpretative powers to expand their authority and jurisdiction.
At the end of the term in June, the Supreme Court is expected to hear another case challenging the Chevron doctrine which requires courts to defer to federal agencies on the definition of terms and interpretation of rules.
For Mike and Chantell Sackett, who have faced nearly two decades of legal battles with the EPA, today’s ruling is a bittersweet victory. “We are grateful for today’s ruling,” said Sackett. “It’s taken 19 years, but finally common sense has prevailed.”
The EPA used its jurisdiction under the CWA to prevent the Sacketts from building a house by classifying their property as "wetlands"
The land had a ditch that drained into a creek which fed into priest lake. So therefore the EPA defined it as "wetlands" and threatened to to…
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