The Supreme Court today ruled in favor of an Idaho couple who had been battling the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to build their dream home.
Four years ago, Mike and Chantell Sackett bought property to build a home near a lake in Bonner County, Idaho. After obtaining local permits the Sacketts began work, pouring in some land fill. But their work came to a screeching halt when they were visited by officials from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The couple was slapped with a compliance order asserting that the land is subject to the Clean Water Act and that they had illegally filled protected wetlands. They were told to stop filling in the lot, and to restore it to its pre-construction condition or face thousands of dollars in potential liability.
The Sacketts sought to challenge the EPA's finding in court, but were told that that they needed to go through a permitting process first, and only after the EPA moved to enforce the order could they seek judicial review.
Today, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision and found that the Sacketts may bring a civil action under the Administrative Procedure Act, which provides for judicial review of "final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in court."
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a unanimous court, said that since the EPA's decision was final, and "since the Sacketts have no other adequate remedy in court, they may bring their suit under the APA."
The decision is a victory for property rights advocates. Attorneys for the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the Sacketts in court, issued a statement calling the decision a "precedent-setting victory for the rights of all property owners."
"The United States Supreme Court today held that landowners have a right to direct, meaningful judicial review if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effectively seizes control of their property by declaring it to be 'wetlands'," the group said.
"The EPA used bullying and threats of terrifying fines, and has made our life hell for the past five years," Mike Sackett said in a statement. "It said we could not go to court and challenge their bogus claim that our small lot had 'wetlands' on it. As this nightmare went on, we rubbed our eyes and started to wonder if we were living in some totalitarian country. Now, the Supreme Court has come to our rescue, and reminded the EPA - and everyone - that this is still America, and Americans still have rights under the Constitution."
Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart - arguing on behalf of the EPA - had stressed the couple could have been in contact with federal officials before beginning work and before the compliance order was issued. "All we're saying is they can't discharge fill, wait to see whether EPA notices, and then insist upon immediate judicial review if EPA notices and objects," Stewart had argued.
Justice Samuel Alito, who issued a separate concurring opinion, said the government's position in the case "would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy" of the EPA. He urged Congress to step in an clarify the reach of the Clean Water Act which he called "notoriously unclear."
"Allowing aggrieved property owners to sue under the Administrative Procedure Act is better than nothing," Alito wrote, " but only clarification of the reach of the Clean Water Act can rectify the underlying problem."