On January 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court granted review of Sackett v. U.S. EPA (No. 21-454) to consider whether the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands constitute “waters of the United States” under the federal Clean Water Act. (33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).) The Supreme Court’s second grant of certiorari marks a pivotal development in a long-running legal battle between the Sacketts—an Idaho couple seeking to build a home near Priest Lake—and the EPA, which has maintained that the Sacketts’ property contains wetlands subject to federal jurisdiction and permitting.
The Sacketts own a residential lot in Bonner County, Idaho, that lies just north of Priest Lake. To prepare for construction of a house, the Sacketts filled part of their lot with dirt and rock. Several months later, the Sacketts received a compliance order from the EPA stating that the lot contained wetlands that were adjacent to Priest Lake, which was a “navigable water” within the meaning of section 502(7) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and constituted “waters of the United States” within the meaning of 40 C.F.R. § 232.2. The compliance order found that the Sacketts violated the CWA by impermissibly discharging pollutants into navigable waters. The order directed the Sacketts to remove the fill and restore the lot to its original condition, or be subject to civil penalties.
March 2012: Initial Lawsuit & Supreme Court Decision
The Sacketts sought, but were denied, an administrative hearing before the EPA. The Sacketts thus filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Idaho, contending that the compliance order violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Sacketts’ due process rights. The petition alleged the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously by issuing the compliance order, and deprived the Sacketts of life, liberty, or property without due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The District Court dismissed the action due to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that the CWA precluded pre-enforcement judicial review of compliance orders, and that such preclusion does not violate the Fifth Amendments’ due process guarantee.
In 2012, the Supreme Court granted review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision to consider whether the EPA’s compliance order constituted a “final agency action” that could be subject to judicial review. The Supreme Court unanimously held in favor of the Sacketts, finding that the order had “all the hallmarks of APA finality.” In an opinion authored by the late Justice Scalia, the court held that the EPA’s order “determined” the “rights or obligations” of the Sacketts by imposing “legal consequences” that “flowed” from noncompliance with its terms. Because the EPA denied them an administrative hearing, the Sacketts possessed “no other adequate remedy in a court” so as to challenge the nature and scope of the order and administrative penalties therein.
August 2021: The Ninth Circuit’s Decision on Remand
On August 16, 2021, the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion on the merits of the Sacketts’ claims. The court of appeal held that the EPA reasonably determined that the Sacketts’ property contained wetlands. The court explained that Justice Kennedy’s interpretation and understanding of “significant nexus” in his concurring opinion in Rapanos v. United States (2006) 547 U.S. 715, provided the standard for determining when wetlands are regulated under the CWA. Applying that test, the panel held that the standard was satisfied because evidence in the record supported EPA’s conclusion that wetlands on the Sacketts’ property were adjacent to a jurisdictional tributary and that, together with a similarly situated wetlands complex, they had a significant nexus to Priest Lake, a navigable water that is regulated under the CWA.
January 2022: The Supreme Court’s Second Grant of Certiorari – Implications
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Rapanos, most lower courts have relied on Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test as the governing standard. Nevertheless, the split of opinion in Rapanos, coupled with the lack of executive rulemaking to clarify the scope of the EPA’s CWA jurisdiction, has created confusion. As such, the Supreme Court’s second grant of certiorari could mark a momentous step in the ongoing debate about the appropriate “WOTUS” test.
The Supreme Court will consider “whether the Ninth Circuit set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are ‘waters of the United States’ under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).” The Sacketts urge the Court to adopt the four-justice plurality’s test in Rapanos, which, unlike the “significant nexus” test, would allow regulation of wetlands only when they have a continuous surface water connection to regulated waters of the United States. In contrast, the EPA maintains that a rule divergent from the significant nexus test would deprive the agency of “authority to protect wetlands separated from a navigable river by a small dune or other natural barrier, even if overwhelming scientific evidence showed that the wetlands significantly affect the river’s ‘chemical, physical, and biological integrity.’”
Though the Court will likely hear this case in October 2022, with a decision to follow in early 2023, it remains to be seen how the pending outcome will affect the EPA’s current implementation of, and revisions to, the “WOTUS” rule. Either way, the scope of federal jurisdiction in regulating and protecting the nation’s wetlands and navigable waters will be decided by our highest court yet again, hopefully yielding greater clarity on the issue rather than further muddying the waters.
– Bridget McDonald