Victory against the EPA at the Supreme Court

Mike and Chantell Sackett have prevailed in their Supreme Court case against the Environmental Protection Agency, winning the “right to a direct, meaningful judicial review” of the EPA’s effective seizure of their property under “wetlands” regulations.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, whose principal attorney Damien M. Schiff represented the Sacketts before the Supreme Court, delivered the happy news in a press release:

“EPA is not above the law,” said Schiff.  “That’s the bottom line with today’s ruling.  This is a great day for Mike and Chantell Sackett, because it confirms that EPA can’t deny them access to justice.  EPA can’t repeal the Sacketts’ fundamental right to their day in court.  And for that reason, it is a great day for all Americans, for all property owners, and for the rule of law.  The justices have made it clear that EPA bureaucrats are answerable to the law and the courts just like the rest of us.  EPA can’t try to micromanage people and their property — it can’t order property owners to dance like marionettes — while denying them any meaningful right to appeal to the courts.  It can’t threaten property owners with financial ruin and not have to justify its threats to a judge.  And it can’t issue lazy, drive-by ‘wetlands’ edicts about private property.  It will have to put in some honest work and use credible science, because the regulators must be able to justify their wetlands orders in a court of law.

 “Rest assured, while today’s ruling strengthens everyone’s individual rights and property rights, and everyone’s access to justice, it does not weaken legitimate environmental protection one iota,” Schiff continued.  “Regulators will simply have to be professional and thorough, not careless and slipshod, when they issue wetlands orders.  In the case of urgent pollution threats, EPA will still have the power, as it does now, to seek an immediate court injunction.  But when there is no emergency, EPA can’t start ordering property owners around — and threatening them with tens of millions of dollars in fines, as with the Sacketts — without first doing some genuine due diligence.  EPA will have to be prepared to show a reviewing court that its wetlands regulations are really necessary — not just a power trip.”

At issue is a half-acre parcel of land in Idaho bought by the Sacketts in 2005 to build their dream home.  After they had obtained all the necessary permits, made a special trip to consult with the Army Corps of Engineers, and begun construction, the EPA swooped in and declared their property to be a protected wetland. 

The EPA denied their request for an immediate hearing, instead telling them to begin a drawn-out “wetlands permit” procedure that would have cost them more than the property did… while EPA fines accumulated at the rate of $32,000 per day, becoming a massive financial guillotine hanging over their necks in the even they should lose their horrendously high-stakes appeal.

This was supposed to intimidate the Sacketts into backing off and surrendering their property, but instead they fought back, and now the EPA’s claims will be subjected to prompt and proper judicial review.  The Supreme Court did not strike down the EPA regulations; writing the unanimous decision, Justice Antonin Scalia explained that “today we consider only whether the dispute may be brought to court by challenging the compliance order – we do not resolve the dispute on the merits.”

However the Sacketts fare in court, this is an important victory for property rights, because it places federal agencies under the purview of civil courts.  Lying in tatters is the EPA’s practice of treating targeted landowners as guilty until proven innocent – and forcing them to put huge and terrifying stakes on the table before daring to challenge the agency’s judgment.

As a jubilant Mike Sackett put it, while thanking the Pacific Legal Foundation for their assistance, the high court has affirmed “that we have rights, and that the EPA is not a law unto itself and that the EPA is not beyond the control of the courts and the Constitution.”

“The EPA used bullying and threats of terrifying fines, and has made our life hell for the past five years,” Sackett continued.  “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.”

The saga of the Sacketts’ dream home is not over… but now, at least, it can continue.