An opinion piece published in the Spokesman-Review sheds some additional light on the Sackett case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As we’ve written before, the Supreme Court is only deciding a procedural point about how and when the Sacketts can challenge an EPA wetlands determination. Even if the Sacketts win their Supreme Court case, they could still lose their challenge when both sides put their facts before a judge. Indeed, based on the Spokesman-Review piece, the Sacketts may face an uphill battle.
In the Spokesman-Review, Michael Doherty, a retired biologist and wetland regulator with the Corps of Engineers writes fairly directly:
“I drove by the property in question for decades and know it is a wetland. It was frequently covered with standing water, soils were saturated, and it was covered with plants common to wetlands in the area. These are the three criteria used to identify wetlands under federal guidelines, and the property meets them all.
Beyond the science, an average person would see it is located at the bottom end of a large drainage and is very wet. Yet they claim the lot is not a wetland. So why did they need to haul fill with dump trucks for three days to prepare it for construction of their house?
The $23,000 price for two-thirds of an acre lot located less than 100 yards from the shore of Priest Lake speaks volumes. The typical price of vacant Priest Lake property is much higher and points to the substandard nature of the property as a home site. As excavation contractors, the Sacketts were amply equipped to fill the lot and prepare it for building.”
The wetland shows up in the USFWS wetland inventory. The Sacketts’ own consultant said it was likely a wetland. (Until they changed consultants, of course.) Just because the property contains a wetland doesn’t necessarily mean that the EPA and the Corps of Engineers have jurisdiction. But these facts and circumstances are obviously not very helpful to the Sacketts when the case comes back to Idaho after its trip to Washington, DC.
“Though portrayed as such, this is not a case of the Sacketts versus a big government fabricating a case against them. The EPA does not fabricate cases because there are wetland violations all around us, and only the most egregious are pursued. The facts of any case are analyzed and reviewed by managers and attorneys and, if weak, it does not go forward to any enforcement action, let alone to administrative orders with possible legal action. The analysis includes impact to private property rights as well because taking private property without just compensation is illegal and the government looks very carefully at this issue before making any regulatory decisions.”
Indeed, as the adage goes: When the law is not on your side, you argue the facts; when the facts are not on your side, you argue the law. The Sacketts have been arguing the law fairly effectively. As this piece points out however, the facts have yet to be heard.
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We’ll probably have more on this later today or tomorrow, but for those interested in how it went at the Supreme Court today, our friends at Center for Justice have posted the transcript of the oral argument. (Spoiler Alert: the EPA seemed to have a pretty tough day.)
Regardless of the outcome of the case, and regardless of how you feel about wetlands enforcement, the EPA, or anything else — the nation’s highest court is an awesome and impressive thing. We’re extremely honored to take part.
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This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to allow filing of an amicus brief in the Sackett v. EPA case which will be argued at the Court on Monday morning. (The Supreme Court’s order (pdf) is here.) The brief is being filed on behalf of NRDC, the Waterkeeper Alliance, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, and Kootenai Environmental Alliance.
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The Supreme Court wetland case involving a Priest Lake lot will be heard by the Court on Monday morning, and the legal and environmental pundits have been previewing the case. The Court has yet to rule on whether a brief by conservation groups will be filed, but a ruling could come as early as tomorrow. In the mean time, here are some of the more impressive previews:
The authoritative and well-respected SCOTUS blog has its preview by legal reporter Lyle Dennison here.
For the Center for Progressive Reform, law professor Nina Mendelson describes why the case is important to environmental enforcement and suggests reforms to avoid problems in the future.
Huffington Post, Washington Post and the LA Times covered the issue recently.
Our friends (and hopefully co-friends-of-the-court) at Idaho Conservation League took note with this post.
UPDATED 1/7: NRDC has a superb post here.
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On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Priest Lake residents Mike and Chantell Sackett. We’ve written about this complicated wetlands case before. The Sacketts are suing the EPA over a wetland determination on their property, and that a compliance order issued by EPA in the case should be immediately reviewable in a Court.
In support of the Sacketts’s position, some 13 parties filed “friend of the court” briefs to expand on the Sackett’s arguments, including heavyweights like the Farm Bureau, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Home Builders and General Electric. However, when KEA joined with NRDC, Waterkeeper Alliance, and several other Idaho conservation groups to file a similar brief in support of the EPA, the Sacketts filed a rare objection. The Supreme Court will likely decide whether or not to allow our brief in the next several days.
At issue is the fact that the scenario the Sacketts outline for the Court does not entirely comport to what actually happened. Documents obtained by environmental groups – including a timeline written by Chantell Sackett herself – paint an entirely different picture.
The Sacketts, who argue to the Court that they were blindsided by an EPA Compliance Order regarding the existence of wetlands on their property, fail to acknowledge to the Court that the EPA and their own consultant told them about the wetlands months earlier. (Much later, the Sacketts evidently hired another consultant more to their liking.) The Sacketts who argue about the heavy hand of the EPA fail to acknowledge to the Court that they had ample opportunity to work with EPA to resolve the issues for almost six months prior to receiving the compliance order and for months afterward. The Sacketts who claim that the wetlands permitting process and risk of fines would be financially devastating and would therefore violate their due process rights, fail to mention that an “after the fact” permit would have been very easy and inexpensive to obtain and was offered by the Corps of Engineers as an option.
The Sacketts do not dispute any of these facts. They do, however, in their opposition to our filing, try to explain them away and diminish their significance to the narrow procedural case before the Court.
Indeed, the Supreme Court may decide that the issue of whether the Sacketts’ story holds up or not is the Supreme Court’s problem, and is rather the Sackett’s problem for a later date. The theoretical issues identified by the Supreme Court in granting their review remain the same. The problem, we believe, is that the Supreme Court doesn’t decide theoretical issues, they decide actual cases. We simply believe they should have all the information in this actual case. We’ll let you know if the Court lets us give our version of the story.
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Here’s the thing to remember. We live in the United States of America. We are a nation of laws. We have a Constitution that gives Congress the authority to pass laws under enumerated powers. One of those powers is provided by the Constitution’s commerce clause. Congress passed the Clean Water Act. The Supreme Court has affirmed that, within commerce clause limits, the Clean Water Act is constitutional.
Under the Clean Water Act, within these jurisdictional limits, you cannot fill a wetland without a permit. If you do so, you are subject to enforcement. If you do so intentionally, you are subject to criminal enforcement.
These are facts. They are not arguable.
Agreed, there is significant uncertainty as to the jurisdictional limits. The Supreme Court has issued an almost impossibly complex test for jurisdiction that the lower federal courts are still figuring out. Still, if you have wetlands on your property, the prudent thing would be to make a phone call to the EPA or Corps of Engineers BEFORE firing up the bulldozer. Filling them first and asking questions later is at your own risk.
Ignorance is not an excuse. And it really shouldn’t be a rallying cry either.
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The USFWS wetland inventory map. An arrow shows the bulldozed Sackett property.
It took all of 5 minutes to create the above map, using the US Fish and Wildlife Service wetlands mapper. Had the Sackett’s taken the time to to look into it before bulldozing their property and filling it with gravel, or had they made a call to the US Army Corps of Engineers for an advance wetland determination, they could have avoided the legal mess that they find themselves in.
Indeed, it is so easy that since 2008, Bonner County has required this minimal wetlands reconnaissance prior to granting Building Location Permits.
This map is not the final word, because before EPA actions can be enforced by a court, experts will need to discuss, for example, whether the map is accurate, whether the soils are wetland soils, and whether the plants are wetland plants. Foremost, the EPA will need to prove that there is federal jurisdiction, by proving there is “a significant nexus” to “navigable water.”
Ultimately, the Sacketts could very well be right about the non-existence of wetlands on their property. Still, a modicum of due diligence should be a prerequisite for a Supreme Court case of Constitutional due process. It takes very little effort to avoid EPA enforcement actions.
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