The Battle for the Right to Challenge Environmental Edicts in Court Continues

New SCOTUS case continues the legal fight over property rights and the Clean Water Act that Sackett v. EPA started.


This week, the Supreme Court heard a case involving property rights and the Clean Water Act that could affect landowners across the country.  

United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc. pits a family-owned business that harvests and processes peat for golf courses against the federal government. Hawkes Company was harvesting peat from a bog on privately owned property in Minnesota in compliance with state environmental laws when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put a halt to their operation, citing the Clean Water Act, which gives the federal government jurisdiction over all navigable waters in the United States. The Corps demand that the company submit to its permitting process before continuing.

The strange thing about this, and other similar cases involving the Clean Water Act, is that the Supreme Court will not rule on whether or not the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is correct in deeming the property a wetland subject to federal regulation, but whether or not the property owners even have a right to challenge the environmental agency's decree in court.

SCOTUS adjudicated a simliar dispute between landowners and the Environmental Protection Agency back in 2012 in Sackett v. EPA. Reason TV profiled the Sackett's case in the video above. While the agency involved is different, the principle is the same: Do landowners have the right to challenge orders from environmental agencies in court, or is such behavior illegal defiance deserving of thousands of dollars in fines a day?

In the Sackett case, the Supreme Court decided 9-0 that EPA rulings could be appealed in court. Reuters reports that the most, but not all, of the justices appeared similarly sympathetic to the Hawkes Company:

Liberal and conservative justices alike expressed concern about the current arrangement's burden on property owners.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said applicants who disregard a government finding that they need a permit do so at "great practical risk."

Liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the process "very arduous and very expensive." Liberal Stephen Breyer called the government decision that Hawkes needed a permit "perfectly suited for review in the courts."

Only liberal Elena Kagan expressed support for the government, raising concerns about the impact a ruling favoring property owners would have on actions by other government agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The court will likely make its ruling in late June.