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by
Dan Miller

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January 9, 2012 - 2:47 pm

Oral arguments were heard at the Supreme Court today in Sackett, et al., v. EPA, challenging actions by the Environmental Protection Agency to keep Michael and Chantell Sackett from building their home on land belatedly declared damp by the agency.

Construction screeched to a halt upon the order of three agents of the Environmental Protection Agency. The property was a federally protected “wetlands,” the Sacketts were told, and they were served with a compliance order to immediately restore the property to its prior condition.

In fact, the EPA compliance order went even further. Relying on authority it claimed to have received under the Clean Water Act, EPA officials prescribed a set of conditions that went beyond the prior condition of the property when the Sacketts purchased it.

The Sacketts were ordered to plant “native scrub-shrub, broad-leaved deciduous wetlands plants and [have the property] seeded with native herbaceous plants.” Further, they were ordered to fence the property and monitor plant growth for three years.

All of this came as quite a shock to the Sacketts because their sliver of land was located in a platted residential subdivision with water and sewer hook-ups, and was bordered by roads on the front and rear and existing homes on either side.

There wasn’t any natural running or standing water on the property. None of the surrounding homes in the community were designated as having occupied wetlands.

According to a report at SCOTUS BLOG,

With a federal government lawyer conceding almost every criticism leveled at the way the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compels landowners to avoid polluting the nation’s waterways, the Supreme Court on Monday seemed well on its way toward finding some way to curb that agency’s enforcement powers. Their task was made easier as Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart stopped just short of saying that EPA was just as heavy-handed as its adversaries — and several of the Justices — were saying.

Perhaps the most telling example: when several of the Justices expressed alarm that a homeowner targeted by EPA’s efforts might face a penalty of as much as $37,500 each day of alleged violation, Stewart made it clear that the fine actually might be doubled, to $75,000 a day, although he tried to recover by saying that was only “theoretical,” and that he did not think that EPA had ever taken that step.

It is sometimes a fool’s game to try to guess about final results on the basis of oral argument. This just might be an exception that proves the rule. The SCOTUS BLOG article is well worth reading.

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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