* Business groups also opposed EPA regulation
* At issue costly fines before court review
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, March 21 The U.S. Supreme Court
ruled on Wednesday that landowners may bring a civil lawsuit
challenging a federal government order under the clean water
law, a decision that sides with corporate groups and sharply
curtails a key Environmental Protection Agency power.
The justices unanimously rejected the U.S. government's
position that individuals or companies must first fail to comply
with an EPA order and face potentially costly enforcement action
before a court can review the case.
The opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia was a victory for an
Idaho couple who challenged a 2007 EPA order that required them
to restore a wetland they had filled with dirt and rock as they
began to build a new vacation home near Priest Lake. They were
also told to stop construction on the home.
The couple, Chantell and Michael Sackett, denied their
property had ever contained a wetland and complained they were
being forced to comply with an order without a court hearing.
Their appeal drew support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,
the National Association of Manufacturers, the National
Association of Home Builders and General Electric Co, a company
that had made a similar challenge to the EPA compliance orders.
The Supreme Court's ruling comes at a time when the EPA has
faced fierce criticism from many Republicans in Congress who say
it has issued the most ambitious clean air regulations in
decades and has become heavy-handed in enforcement actions.
Scalia concluded the Sacketts may bring a civil lawsuit
under the Administrative Procedures Act to challenge the EPA's
He said that since the EPA's decision was final and the
couple faced potential large fines, they had no other adequate
remedy but to bring a civil lawsuit.
Reading his decision from the bench, Scalia said that the
Clean Water Act does not prevent judicial review of such orders.
Under the law, violations of the Clean Water Act can result
in fines of up to $37,500 per day, plus as much as an additional
$37,500 per day for violating the EPA compliance order.
The EPA issues nearly 3,000 compliance orders a year that
require accused violators of environmental laws to stop alleged
harmful actions and repair any damage that was caused.
The justices overturned a U.S. appeals court ruling that a
compliance order was not subject to judicial review until later
when the EPA has brought an enforcement action and seeks to have
a judge rule in its favor.
'DAY IN COURT'
The court did not reach the broader question of whether the
EPA's order violated the constitutional right of due process. It
only held that the federal Administrative Procedures Act, which
provides certain rules for federal regulatory agencies, applied.
Scalia said that the Sacketts would not get an adequate
remedy if they had to apply to the Army Corps of Engineers for a
permit and then file suit if that permit is denied.
Government attorneys had defended the compliance orders as a
quick way to stop environmental damage and argued that allowing
accused polluters to get a court hearing would tie the EPA up in
An attorney for the Sacketts argued that they should not
have to wait for years for judicial review until the EPA decides
to go to court and said the compliance order was coercive,
requiring action to avoid potentially huge fines.
Damien Schiff, the attorney for the couple, hailed the
ruling. "EPA is not above the law," he said.
"That's the bottom line with today's ruling. This is a great
day for Mike and Chantell Sackett, because it confirms that EPA
can't deny them access to justice. EPA can't repeal the
Sacketts' fundamental right to their day in court," he said.
The Supreme Court case is Sackett v EPA, No. 10-1062.