The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." This means that if the government infringes on your rights, you are entitled to mount a timely and meaningful defense of those rights in court. It's one of the cornerstones of our entire legal system, with roots dating back at least as far as the Magna Carta, which declared, "No free man…shall be stripped of his rights or possessions…except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."
Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prefers a less venerable form of justice, as the Supreme Court will hear next month during oral arguments in the case of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency. At issue is the EPA's enforcement of the Clean Water Act through so-called administrative compliance orders, which are government commands that allow the agency to control the use of private property without the annoyance of having to subject its actions to judicial review.
The case started four years ago when a married couple named Mike and Chantell Sackett received an EPA compliance order instructing them to stop construction on what was supposed to be their dream home near Priest Lake, Idaho. The government claimed their .63-acre lot was a federally-protected wetland, but that was news to the Sacketts, who had procured all the necessary local permits. Their lot, which is bordered by two roads and several other residential lots, was in fact zoned for residential use.
The Sacketts contend that the compliance order was issued erroneously and they would like the opportunity to make their case in court. Yet according to the terms of the Clean Water Act, they may not challenge the order until the EPA first seeks judicial enforcement of it, a process that could take years. In the meantime, the Sacketts risk $32,500 in fines per day if they fail to comply. And complying doesn't just mean they have to stop building; they must also return the lot to its original condition at their own expense.
Moreover, if they did eventually prevail under the current law, the Sacketts would then need to start construction all over again. By that point they would have paid all of the necessary compliance costs plus double many of their original building expenses. And who knows how much time would have been lost. Where's the due process in that? The Sacketts understandably want the right to challenge the government's actions now, not after it's become too late or too expensive for them to put their property to its intended use.
For its part, the EPA argues that old-fashioned judicial review would simply get in the way. As the agency states in the brief it submitted to the Supreme Court, "A rule that broadly authorized immediate judicial review of such agency communications would ultimately disserve the interests of both the government and regulated parties, by discouraging interactive processes that can obviate the need for judicial action."
Of course, the whole point of due process is that people sometimes do have "the need for judicial action" against overreaching government officials. Why should those people have to give up that right to the EPA? More to the point, why should the Supreme Court allow it to happen?
As the Institute for Justice observes in the friend of the court brief it filed on behalf of the Sacketts, "If other governmental agencies were to adopt an enforcement mechanism like that used by the Environmental Protection Agency in this case, the constitutional guarantee of due process under the law would be severely harmed and the ability to own and use private property would be subject to the unrestrained and unreviewed orders of government officials." There's a term for that sort of unchecked government power, and it's not interactive processes.
This case boils down to the protection of a fundamental constitutional right. It's not about hamstringing bureaucrats or overturning environmental laws. The Supreme Court simply needs to ensure that the Sacketts—and all other property owners—get their day in court by ruling that administrative compliance orders are subject to judicial review. Due process demands nothing less.
Damon W. Root is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
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