Tag: U.S. Supreme Court

The Future of Wetlands and Waters of the United States: U.S. Supreme Court Grants Review of Sackett v. EPA

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.

Factual Background

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

Petition for Writ of Certiorari Submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Contesting the Ninth Circuit’s Decision Upholding USFWS’s Biological Opinion on Delta Smelt

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), if the Secretary of the Interior concludes that a federal agency action will jeopardize a species listed as threatened or endangered, then the Secretary must use the best scientific and commercial data available to identify reasonable and prudent alternatives that are economically and technologically feasible. Petitioners in State Water Contractors v. Jewell presented the U.S. Supreme Court with the following questions related to the Act’s directive: 1) Must the Secretary address in the administrative record the economic and technical feasibility of proposed “reasonable and prudent alternative,” including the effects of the proposed alternatives on third parties? 2) May the Secretary disregard the “best scientific data” on the ground that considering the data would lead to a less “conservative” result, because scientific certainty is impossible, or because the Secretary has considered a range of data in reaching a conclusion?

This case arose after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a Biological Opinion (BiOp) in 2005 which found that operation of the state’s two largest water projects, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, threatened the delta smelt, and thereby curtailed those projects’ operations. The district court found major flaws with the BiOp and ordered FWS to reconsider it, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. The appellate court held that FWS was precluded as a matter of law from considering the economic effects of its proposed restrictions on project operations on Californians. The court also excused FWS’s failure to use the best available scientific data in formulating its opinion. Petitioners argued that the Ninth Circuit’s decision exacerbated the harmful effects of California’s drought, created circuit splits, and contravened the Supreme Court’s precedents.

The BiOp, which the appellate court described as “a big bit of a mess,” concluded that unless the quality and quantity of the delta smelt habitat improved, the smelt would not recover from their downward population trend. The BiOp specified various actions as reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs) to the status quo, including limiting the amount of water the projects could pump for certain uses. Petitioners claimed that the amount of water sacrificed to implement the RPAs could have met the needs of over one million households for a year, or irrigated two hundred thousand acres of farmland.

District Court decision

Petitioners brought suit alleging the BiOp violated NEPA, the ESA, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The district court held the BiOp invalid. First, it found FWS had failed to establish that its RPAs met the requirements for a reasonable and prudent alternative under 50 C.F.R. section 402.02, including the requirement that the proposed restrictions be economically and technologically feasible. The court also held that the analyses supporting the specific flow prescriptions set forth in the RPA were fatally flawed and predominantly unsupported, given that 1) FWS failed to use the best available science in calculating flow rates to reduce the number of fish drawn into the pumping stations and 2) the BiOp adopted a flawed methodology to set limits on salinity in the Delta in the autumn of years categorized as above-normal or wet. The court found the agency’s decision “was arbitrary and capricious and ignored the best available science showing that a bias was present.”

Ninth Circuit decision

In a divided panel, the Ninth Circuit reversed. The majority agreed with FWS that the agency was not required to explain why its proposed RPAs met the feasibility standard set forth in the agency’s own regulations. The court also upheld FWS’s decision to use raw salvage data, concluding that normalized data was not tailored to protect the maximum absolute number of individual smelt, as the BiOp’s approach was. The court noted that although ideally FWS would have discussed its reasoning in using that data, the agency’s choice was entitled to deference. One judge sitting by designation from the Eighth Circuit dissented, arguing that because the concerns relating to the RPAs’ feasibility had been raised, FWS was required to at least address those concerns in the BiOp or in the administrative record. The dissent also argued that FWS had failed to use the best available science. The dissent also concluded that the agency’s means of determining where in the Delta the salinity reaches two parts per thousand was arbitrary and capricious, and disagreed with the majority’s decision to ignore the expert witnesses.

Argument for granting the writ

Petitioners described the issues presented as ones of “exceptional national importance.” They argued cert is warranted to resolve a circuit conflict over whether a consulting agency must consider the effects on third parties when proposing reasonable and prudent alternatives to agency action. Furthermore, petitioners noted, whether the ESA requires or precludes an agency from considering the economic impact of its proposed restrictions on agency activity on third parties is a question of recurring importance, given the fact that the federal government conducts thousands of ESA consultations every year. Petitioners argued, that, contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation, the presence of the feasibility requirement in the definition section of the regulations made the requirement more central to the agency’s obligation of reasoned explanation than it would if the requirement appeared elsewhere. By failing to consider feasibility, petitioners stated, FWS entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, and therefore acted arbitrarily and capriciously. This would not mean that an RPA requirement authorizes FWS to balance the life of delta smelt against the impact of restrictions on project operations; but in choosing among possible alternatives that would avoid jeopardy, an agency would be required to consider the impact of the various effective alternatives on third parties, “in order to avoid unnecessary harm to humans in the course of protecting plants and animals.”