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Sackett v. EPA: Yes, You Can Fight the Man

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Supreme Court ruled today that an Idaho couple can bring a civil action against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to challenge a compliance order, instead of waiting for the EPA to initiate a court action. Federal courts had previously rejected the couple's claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

In 2007, Mike and Chantelle Sackett began filling their plot of land near Priest Lake in Idaho with dirt and rock to prepare to build a house. The EPA took note, and issued an administrative compliance order against the Sacketts. The compliance order alleged that the plot was a wetland subject to the Clean Water Act (CWA) and that the Sacketts violated the CWA by filling the property without a permit.

The compliance order required the Sacketts to remove the fill material and restore the parcel to its original condition, or face civil and administrative penalties. Government attorneys later conceded before the Supreme Court that the fines could have been as high as $75,000 per day.

The Sacketts tried to challenge the EPA. They hired scientists to refute the wetland claim, and show that their landlocked plot in an already-developed neighborhood was not a wetland, reports Reason. When the EPA continued to assert CWA jurisdiction over the lands, but refused to grant the Sacketts a hearing, the couple sued in federal court.

The courts, however, responded that they didn't have subject matter jurisdiction to review the compliance order because the EPA had not filed a lawsuit enforce the order. Since the EPA must prove a violation to a judge for the court to assess fines, the courts claimed that the Sacketts had to wait for the EPA to go to court before they could challenge the order.

Not so, the Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous opinion by Justice Scalia, the Court ruled that the Sacketts can sue the EPA under the Administrative Procedures Act to challenge the compliance order. According to the opinion, the agency's decision was final and the Sacketts had no other adequate remedy in a court, so they could file their lawsuit, reports CNN.

Mike Sackett was understandably pleased with the decision, telling CNN, "The Supreme Court has come to our rescue and reminded the EPA -- and everyone -- that this is still America, and Americans still have rights under the Constitution."

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