Court Ruling Restricts Federal Agencies

March 28, 2012 Updated: March 28, 2012

On March 21, the Supreme Court reversed a decision that carries implications for citizens across the country by restricting the power of federal agencies.

The judgment is seen as a success for Mike and Chantell Sackett, who in 2005 purchased some land near Priest Lake in Northern Idaho. After spending $23,000 for the property and then laying gravel to build a home, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the area a protected wetland under the Clean Water Act.

The couple was ordered to stop construction and restore the land. Unless the Sacketts complied in restoring the area, and until the EPA brought about legal action to enforce the legally backed order, the Sacketts were susceptible to over $30,000 a day in additional penalties.

The Sacketts, who did not believe their land to be subject to the Clean Water Act, requested the EPA for a hearing but were denied.

According to the Clean Water Act, upon the EPA finding any restriction violations, only the EPA has the right to initiate civil action. The act thus prohibited the Sacketts from seeking their own legal action.

Both a federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled against the Sacketts.

The Sacketts contended the rulings, asserting the orders were “capricious and arbitrary,” and that they were being deprived of “life, liberty, or property under due process of law,” as guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, representing the Sacketts, petitioned the Supreme Court, and on June 28, 2011, the justices announced they would hear the case.

On March 21, the justices unanimously sided with the Idaho couple and decided that no agency should be outside the law of judicial review.

Said a concurring Justice Samuel Alito: “In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.”

Although the court’s decision to “reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals” was effected, the order also makes clear the overall effectiveness of government agencies like the EPA issuing compliance orders, like the one issued to the Sacketts.

However, the court also noted, “The EPA is less likely to use the orders if they are subject to judicial review.”

The Sacketts view the decision as a victory.

“We are very pleased with the ruling,” says the Sackett’s attorney Damien Schiff, “It represents a significant change with how the EPA issues orders.”

While the situation could have possibly been averted from the start had the Sacketts consulted an Army Corps of Engineers official in securing the proper written permits before beginning construction, how and where the Sacketts end up when all is said and done is not known.

What is known, however, is the couple’s next step in the process. According to Schiff, the next step is taking the case back to the courts.

However, it won’t be without resistance.

“The Sacketts have an uphill battle, but they have a good argument,” says Schiff, “Agencies get a lot of deferential treatment from the courts.”

What the EPA faces is the prospect of potential limitations to its authority, but the agency acknowledges the Supreme Court’s ruling.

According to a statement issued by the EPA: “The EPA will of course fully comply with the Supreme Court’s decision, which the agency is still reviewing, as we work to protect clean water for our families and future generations by using the tools provided by Congress to enforce the Clean Water Act.”