Sackett v. EPA: How One Couple's Battle Against the Feds Might Protect Your Land


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The decision in the Supreme Court case Sackett v. EPA, due later this spring, could very well affect the meaning of property rights and due process in the United States. So how did a small-town couple from Northern Idaho ever become the center of such a momentous case? talked with the Sacketts and their attorney to find out.

Mike Sackett dreamed of building a home on Idaho's Priest Lake ever since he camped there with friends in high school.

"I remember coming home, told my mom and dad that I was going to move to Priest Lake, and they just said, 'Oh, no you're not.' And I said, 'Oh yeah. Yeah I am,'" Sackett said.

Years later, Sackett realized that dream when he and his wife, Chantelle Sackett, bought a plot of land near Priest Lake and started to build. After securing the necessary permits from local authorities, the Sacketts were only three days into the process of clearing the land when officials from the EPA showed up and put their dreams on hold.

The EPA informed the Sacketts that they suspected they were building on wetlands and had to cease work immediately. The Sacketts were stunned because their property was a completely landlocked lot within an existing subdivision. When Chantelle Sackett asked for evidence, the EPA pointed her to the National Fish and Wildlife Wetlands Inventory, which showed them that their lot… was not on an existing wetland.

The EPA responded issued what's known as a compliance order, which said that the Sacketts were in violation of the Clean Water Act and subject to fines of up to $37,500 a day.

"You go to bed with that on your mind every night," said Mike Sackett, who owns a contracting company. "It's been painful personally. It's been painful on our business."

The EPA refused to offer any documentation or evidence for its position, even after the Sacketts hired their own scientists to refute the wetlands claim. Feeling they had no other choice, they tried to take the EPA to court. Unfortunately, not even this was an option, because the EPA maintained that a compliance order is nothing more than a warning and that they cannot be challenged until they actually enforce the fines, which were racking up by the day.

"The only way the Sacketts could get judicial review that way, was by ignoring the compliance order," said Damien Schiff, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which took up the Sacketts' case. "EPA still might just sit on its hands and let the possible fines pile up."

Schiff and the Pacific Legal Foundation lost to the EPA in lower courts, but this afforded them the opportunity to take the case to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in early January 2012. Schiff and the Sacketts both felt heartened by what transpired there.

"I was surprised by some of the questions that came from the justices," said Mike Sackett. "They were questions that we would've asked."

If the Sacketts do win in the Supreme Court, they will then have the opportunity to actually challenge the EPA's compliance order in the lower courts. Just having the opportunity to challenge that, says Schiff, would be a major victory for property rights and for due process of law.

"The agency says it doesn't want to go into court, it shouldn't have to go into court," said Schiff. "The chutzpah, the arrogance, is, frankly, almost unimaginable."

About 7.30 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Sharif Matar. Additional camera by Paul Detrick, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Weissmueller. Additional footage courtesy of the Pacific Legal Foundation. Music: "Water" by Big Blood, "City Night Line" by Cobra avec Panther, "The River Who Drinks All I've Had" by Makunouchi Bento, "Film 1" by Torture Super Sonic.

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