Environmental Protection Agency

Will Chantell and Michael Sackett Get Another Day in the Supreme Court?

The Sackett's' litigation with the Environmental Protection Agency has continued, and may provide the Court with a new opportunity to consider the scope of federal regulatory jurisdiction.

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Chantell and Michael Sackett bought a residential lot in Bonner County, Idaho over fifteen years ago. Their plan was to build a home, but things have not yet worked out that way.

While making initial construction preparations, the Sacketts received an Administrative Compliance Order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging the deposit of fill onto their property constituted an unlawful discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Part of the Sackett's parcel contained wetlands, the EPA explained, and filling wetlands without a permit is prohibited. Failure to remedy the discharge, the EPA warned, could expose the Sacketts to penalties exceeding $40,000 per day.

When the Sacketts sought to challenge this determination, the EPA claimed the ACO was not subject to judicial review. This prompted a lengthy legal fight, ending with a unanimous 2012 Supreme Court opinion in the Sacketts' favor. The Sacketts would be allowed to sue. [I wrote about the Sackett opinion and some of the broader issues it raises in this article for the Cato Supreme Court Review.]

Litigation over whether the Sacketts' land contains wetlands subject to the CWA continued for several more years until, in 2020, the EPA withdrew the ACO, on the grounds that the agency had decided not to pursue the case "years ago," but the agency did not alter its judgment that the the Sacketts' land is subject to federal regulation under the CWA.

This was the state of play before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which issued a decision in Sackett v. USEPA last week. The opinion by Judge Michelle Friedland readily dispatched with the EPA's dilatory procedural tactics, but nonetheless ruled against the Sacketts on the ultimate question at issue: Whether their land is subject to regulation under the CWA. Now the question is whether this case will go back to the Supreme Court.

The EPA had tried to argue that its decision to rescind the ACO rendered the case moot. Judge Friedland ably and soundly rejected this argument. The EPA's decision to rescind the ACO did not preclude the agency from taking additional action against the Sacketts and the EPA's action "did nothing to alter EPA's position throughout this litigation that it has the authority to regulate the Sacketts' property." Accordingly, the EPA could not establish that its own voluntary choice to rescind the ACO rendered the case moot. "As long as EPA avoids disclaiming authority to regulate the Sacketts' property," Judge Friedland explained, "the core of this dispute is alive and well." She continued:

[A]lthough we . . . presume EPA withdrew its amended compliance order in good faith, the agency's conduct prevents that presumption from carrying the day. As explained, we are not confident that the agency has permanently ceased attempting to regulate the Sacketts' land. In addition, we note that, although EPA represents that it resolved "several years ago" not to enforce the amended compliance order, it informed the Sacketts of this development only on the eve of EPA's filing deadline for its opposition brief—a deadline we had already extended twice, in response to requests from the agency that had not mentioned any change in the agency's enforcement intentions. If we are to take EPA's letter at face value, the agency caused the Sacketts  to litigate crossmotions for summary judgment in the district court, participate in mediation, and then pursue this appeal after the agency had already concluded it would never enforce the challenged compliance order. Forcing the Sacketts to engage in years of litigation, under threat of tens of thousands of dollars in daily fines, only to assert at the eleventh hour that the dispute has actually been moot for a long time, is not a litigation strategy we wish to encourage.

Indeed.

While I found Judge Friedland's consideration of the mootness question exemplary, I have some questions about her analysis of the underlying question of whether the Sackett's property is subject to federal regulation under the CWA. As a threshold matter, Judge Friedland noted that Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion in Rapanos v. United States provides the relevant standard, and therefore wetlands on the Sacketts' property are only subject to CWA regulation if they have a "significant nexus" to navigable waters. I believe this is correct both as a matter of Ninth Circuit precedent as well as relevant Supreme Court caselaw. In Judge Friedland's view, the evidence provided by the EPA suggests that this standard was met, and (not having studied the trial court record) this may well be so.

Where I believe Judge Friedland may have erred is in considering whether the Sacketts' property satisfied the (then-applicable) regulatory definition of "waters of the United States" when considering whether there was a "significant nexus." As the Court held in Rapanos, the EPA's regulations were broader than the CWA authorizes, and thus the Sixth Circuit committed by reversible error by only considering whether the lands in question satisfied the regulatory definition. Put another way, the relevant regulations fail to embody the relevant

Under Rapanos, whether or not the Sackett's property satisfies the regulatory definition of "waters of the United States" does not matter, as the regulations adopted a definition of federal regulatory jurisdiction that exceeded the scope of the agencies' authority (if not also the scope of the federal power to regulate commerce among the several states). Thus, showing that a given property satisfies the regulations does not demonstrate that the property is, in fact, subject to CWA regulation. (The opposite, however, would be relevant, as land insufficiently connected to navigable waters to satisfy the regulatory definition could not possibly satisfy the more narrow "significant nexus" test.)

My concern is that Judge Friedland thought it relevant whether the Sacketts' property fell within the scope of the then-applicable regulations because they were "adjacent to a jurisdictional tributary," when such adjacency was rejected as sufficient to establish jurisdiction in Rapanos. Further, Judge Friedland accepted the EPA's argument that such adjacency was itself sufficient to establish that the Sackett's parcel, when combined with "similarly situated" parcels (i.e. all other lands also adjacent to the same unnamed and nonnavigable tributary), had a "significant nexus" to navigable waters. This analysis seems to accept some sleight of hand, for it takes the factor the Supreme Court concluded was insufficient to establish a 'significant nexus"—adjacency to a tributary—to establish a "significant nexus" through aggregation.

On this basis, Judge Friedland concluded that the EPA "reasonably determined that the Sacketts' property contains wetlands that share a significant nexus" with a nearby lake, rendering it subject to regulation under the CWA. Thus, the Sacketts' are still unable to build on their lot, at least not until they obtain a federal permit.

I strongly suspect the Sacketts will file a petition for certiorari, urging the Court to bring greater clarity  and concreteness to CWA regulation that Justice Kennedy's "significant nexus" test provides. Indeed, I suspect the Sacketts will seek to convince the Court to jettison Justice Kennedy's test in favor of something more stringent, such as the narrower test offered in Justice Scalia's Rapanos plurality.

Three of the justices who joined Justice Scalia's Rapanos opinion are still on the Court (Thomas, Alito, and the Chief), and Justice Kavanaugh expressed an affinity for Justice Scalia's analysis in his Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Federation concurrence. Assuming no one has changed their mind, counting to five would only require picking up Justice Gorsuch or Justice Barrett, so a fifth vote for a Scalia-like opinion would seem to be within reach.

The Sackett case might be an appealing vehicle to reconsider CWA jurisdiction because the Court has seen this case before, and the Sacketts are certainly more sympathetic petitioners than would be large developers or environmental scofflaws (as Rapanos appeared to be). The time could also be right to hear such a case, as a decision on the scope of CWA jurisdiction would inform ongoing efforts to adopt a new regulatory definition of "waters of the United States," as well as the litigation that any such definition will produce.

In the meantime, the Sacketts are still waiting to make productive use of their land.

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  1. 8+ years since they “won” in the Supreme Court.

    Rule of law baby!

    1. At which time the Court had followed its standard pattern of maximizing lawyer income by carefully avoiding wrapping the whole thing up.

    2. This case exemplified the Obama nightmare for the nation that the election of Trump woke us up from.

      1. The waking up screaming metaphor is undercut by the four years of screaming.
        Regulators deciding not to regulate is SO Republican…

  2. Speaking from memory, my recollection of the geography & terrain of the property was that there had been development of the properties located between the sacketts property and the lake which made any possibly of navigation of the waters much drainage into the lake nearly impossible.

    My other recollection was that the property was low lying and would require fill dirt to perform any type of construction.

    1. What’s always a bit confusing to me is that the county seat of Bonner County is Sandpoint, and contains almost all of lake Pend Orielle. The town Bonner’s Ferry is the county seat of Boundary County (containing the infamous Ruby Ridge) just to the north, and Pend Orielle County is just west of there in WA.

      Lake Pend Orielle is the 5th deepest lake in the country, and as a result doesn’t tend to freeze. Partially because of these factors, Pend Orielle has a Navy base of sorts for underwater acoustic testing. The Navy’s facility is in Bayview, at the bottom of the lake, and adjacent to that town was the Navy’s second largest training facility (Farragut) during WW II – all in landlocked Idaho. Farragut, BTW, is in Kootenai County, whose county seat is Coeur d’Alene, which actually contains the lake of that name.

      Feeding Lake Pend Orielle is the Clark Fork river, which was named after the famous explorer. The Clark Fork runs through Missoula. That probably would have been the easiest route for the expedition to get to the Pacific Ocean, except that they didn’t find any salmon in that river, That turned out to be because of Thompson Falls, about halfway between Missoula and Pend Orielle on the Clark Fork. Thompson Falls is named after David Thompson, a British/Canadian explorer who mapped much of southern Canada, came through the area a couple years after Lewis and Clark, and founded a fur trading post by that town named after his falls (~1810). Turns out that Thompson Falls wasn’t that high, and the portage around it would have been an easy mile or so.

      Coming back to somewhat relevance, about a decade ago, the MT Supreme Court determined that the dams on three rivers (Missouri (Great Falls), Yellowstone, and Clark Fork (Thompson Falls)) had been “navigable” prior to the construction of the dams. The importance of that fact was that meant that the sale of the land for the dams a century from the state had been invalid, and had to be repurchased from another state agency (a fund for schools or some such). The determination of navigability for the Clark Fork was based on a steamboat having once been able to get as high on that river as Thompson Falls. And since that steamboat had to cross Lake Pend Orielle to get there, it too would have been navigable, by their definition.

      1. “it too would have been navigable, by their definition.”

        Imagine using “a boat crossed that stretch of water” as a definition of “navigable”. Will this legal doublespeak ever find an end?

      2. Hey. “A boat can get across the lake” means that it’s navigable is the best argument I’ve seen in a long while. To compare, the significant nexus argument is so nebulous that I’ve personally seen low spots on land declared “wetlands” because by construction of a driveway two years prior had messed up the drainage.

        1. I agree, that’s actually a fair definition, in this context. Better than calling drainage ditches ‘navigable’ because they empty into a river at some point.

  3. Clarification on my comment – Google the sacketts to get pictures of their property. Certainly doesnt look like wetland from the pictures

    1. That’s part of the problem: The government’s definition of “wetland” has nothing to do with the conventional ecosystem definition. A corner of a farmer’s field that develops a puddle during heavy rainstorms qualifies.

      1. Professor, please compare and contrast how the Sixth Cir. responded to vexatious litigation with sanctions while the 9th did not treat vexatious government lawyers similarly – either those on the case ‘years ago’ or those on it in between.

    2. What the land “looks like” has no bearing on the lies that the bureaucrats will use to interfere with property rights of citizens.
      Real world experience – We were in the construction process for an addition to our home. The bureaucrats issued a stop order saying that they had decided that we were in a wetland. It took several months for our architect to prove it was separated from the wetland a half mile away. The key? A very old apple tree from the original homestead was at least 100 feet from the back of our property between us and the wetland. Apple trees don’t grow in wetlands.

    3. Those ponds eventually led to wetlands and rivers. Your inground pool qualified for restriction according to the EPA interpretation.

  4. other than DC and military bases and perhaps a few national parks the Federal Govt should own no land nor be able to tell States what to do in their States..the Federal Govt is acting so far outsides the bounds of the Constitution…Jefferson was right..we should have kept the Articles of Confederation with a few minor changes…

    1. Jefferson bought a huge chunk of what is now the United States from France. If the federal government couldn’t own that land except for a few military bases, who does? Surely not the aboriginal people living on it at the time?

      1. See also the Oregon Territory. If the federal government didn’t own it, how did they give so much of it to homesteaders and railroads?

      2. We have to distinguish between land outside the states, and inside. Land inside states is only supposed to be purchased by the federal government with the consent of a state legislature.

        The problem began when the federal government got a bit hostile to private ownership of land, and started retaining ownership of huge swaths of it when territories became states, instead of turning it over to the state, as had been prior practice. So the original states are mostly state and private, the last few states admitted are still majority federal territory. Nevada, for instance, is about 85% federal territory.

        So you’ve got all this land the federal government retained after states were created, for purposes that weren’t constitutionally contemplated.

        1. In Oregon, the feds own huge tracts of land because they had given the land to build railroads, with conditions attached. The railroads didn’t keep their end of the bargain, so the lands reverted to the feds.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_and_California_Railroad_Revested_Lands

        2. The original states were states before the federal government was created, and the last few states were created out of federal territories. I wonder if that makes any kind of difference?

  5. I wonder how much the Sacketts have paid in legal costs, and how much it would’ve been to just get the permit when the EPA first said it was required.

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