Supreme Court appears sympathetic to Idaho couple in 4-year battle with EPA

Conservative members of the Supreme Court seemed outraged Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency’s actions in a four-year battle with an Idaho couple who want to build a house on land the EPA says contains sensitive wetlands.

Justices across the ideological spectrum appeared troubled by the EPA’s position that Mike and Chantell Sackett do not have the right to go court to challenge the agency’s wetlands decision.

But some justices got more worked up about the case than others, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. led the parade.

“If you related the facts of this case . . . to an ordinary homeowner, don’t you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can’t happen in the United States?” Alito asked Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart, who was representing the EPA.

The Sacketts wanted to build a home on a 0.63-acre lot near Priest Lake in the Idaho panhandle that they bought for $23,000. But after three days of bringing in fill dirt and preparing for construction in 2007, officials from the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered the activity stopped and said they suspected the land contained wetlands.

Months later, the agency sent the Sacketts a “compliance order” that said the land must be restored as a wetlands before the couple could apply for a building permit. The government acknowledged Monday that fines for failure to comply with the orders could be as much as $75,000 a day.

The question for the justices is whether the couple had the right at that point to appear before a judge and contest the agency’s contention that their land contained wetlands subject to the Clean Water Act.

So far, all the lower courts that have reviewed such claims agree with the government that the agency’s compliance orders are not subject to judicial review. They have said that because the EPA must prove a violation to a judge for the court to levy fines, that is the proper time for the courts to get involved.

The Sacketts counter that the compliance order is mandatory; they say it requires action to avoid the potential of ruinous fines. Even the prospect of waiting to see whether the EPA will go to court — it has years to make the decision — deprives the couple of their land and leaves them “to the mercy and whim of EPA.”

The couple have become a favored cause for developers, corporations, utilities, libertarians and conservative members of Congress, who chafe against what they say are heavy-handed enforcement actions by the EPA.

If they thought the Sacketts would present a sympathetic personification of their concern to the court, they seemed to have guessed correctly.

“What would you do, Mr. Stewart, if you received this compliance order?” asked Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “You don’t think your property has wetlands on it and you get this compliance order from the EPA. What would you do?”

When Stewart attempted to point to documents from an environmental group that seemed to indicate the Sacketts had early warning that their land might be subject to regulation and could have negotiated before the EPA’s compliance order, Roberts said sternly: “If they weren’t in the record, I don’t want to hear about them.”

The government has said the EPA’s power to issue compliance orders, with its threats of huge fines, is a way to quickly move to stop environmental damage. Allowing polluters to go to court would tie up the agency in litigation.

But several justices seemed to agree with the Sacketts’s lawyer, Damien M. Schiff of the Pacific Legal Foundation, that those subject to the EPA orders should not have to wait for the agency to decide whether to go to court.

“For 75 years, the courts have interpreted statutes with an eye toward permitting judicial review, not the opposite,” said Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

The case is Sackett v. EPA.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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