In February 2023, we reported on the upcoming Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling on Sackett v. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). In 2004, 19 years ago, Michael and Chantall Sackett bought a lot behind a row of lakefront houses on Priest Lake, Idaho. They planned to build a house on this residential lot. There was a manmade ditch on their lot.
After the Sacketts began to develop their lot and laid down 1,700 cubic yards of sand and gravel on their lot, The EPA swept in and informed the Sacketts they could not build on their lot, that the EPA was in control of their lot because it contained wetlands that qualify as “navigable waters” regulated by the CWA, and the Sacketts had failed to obtain a Clean Water Act permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
The EPA claimed the manmade ditch on the Sackett’s property were wetlands because the ditch spills about a half mile downstream into Kalispell Creek, which spills another thousand feet from that point into Priest Lake. The ditch in question did not connect with Priest Lake. This started a 16-year legal entanglement between the Sacketts and the EPA in 2007, when the Sacketts sued the EPA.
This battle went to the Supreme Court twice and in and out of the lower U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled repeatedly with the EPA citing Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test from Rapanos v. United States, 2006. This ruling happened in 2008, four years after the Sacketts bought their lot.
SCOTUS heard Sackett v. EPA for the first time in 2012, after a 2010 Ninth Circuit Court ruling that denied the Sacketts any recourse to challenge the EPA’s assertion of authority over their lot. SCOTUS reversed the Ninth Circuit and remanded the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings to be consistent with its opinion.
This case depended on the definition of Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test citing Rapanos v. United States, and if it was a valid test about the water in the manmade ditch. For another ten years, the case batted back and forth in the lower courts until SCOTUS agreed to hear the case again and would limit the case to one question:
“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 SCOTUS Decision:
“We hold that the CWA extends to only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right, so that they are ‘indistinguishable’ from those waters,” Justice Alito wrote, quoting from past court opinions.
Justice Alito was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. A total SCOTUS majority of the 9-0 decision rebuked the EPA’s claim to limitless regulatory authority and determined that the Sackett’s land is not subject to the Clean Water Act.
Did the Supreme Court Overturn the Clean Water Act (CWA)?
No, SCOTUS did not overturn the CWA. The dissolution of the CWA was not part of the Sackett v. EPA lawsuit. The issue was if the Sackett’s land was subject to the CWA.
What Was the Name of the Supreme Court EPA Case?
There have been thousands of SCOTUS, federal appeals courts, and state courts cases against the EPA since its inception on December 2, 1970, costing the taxpayers billions of dollars for 53 years. The name of this case was Sackett v. EPA.
How Will The Supreme Court’s EPA Ruling Affect US Wetlands Clean Water?
In this article, Lake Hub is referencing SCOTUS’ ruling on Sackett v. EPA. Since the establishment of the EPA in 1970, and the thousands of cases filed against the EPA, SCOTUS decisions have not led to the dissolution of the EPA. SCOTUS at times sides with the EPA and at other times, sides with the plaintiffs.
SCOTUS’ Sackett v. EPA ruling in effect decided that CWA wetlands are protected by federal law only when they are adjoining navigable waters of the United States. This means that business and residential developers will have an easier time obtaining permits to build near wetlands protected by the CWA.
Is the Clean Water Act Unconstitutional?
No, the CWA finds its legal permission in the United States Constitution. The Commerce Clause, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate intrastate and interstate commerce. Navigable waters support interstate commerce.
What Is the Biggest Problem with the Clean Water Act?
We do not know. The CWA was enacted in 1972, two years after the establishment of the EPA. Based on the thousands of lawsuits filed against the EPA in connection with the CWA in all levels of the U.S. Court system, the legal language of the CWA is vague and opaque. This means that the courts and justices have to interpret on the vague clauses in the CWA. It appears that the language of the CWA is one of its largest problems.
Has West Virginia v. EPA Been Decided?
In this case, the issue was whether the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could consider “generation shifting” from higher carbon producing pollutants like coal and natural gas to lower carbon resources like natural gas and renewable energy sources. SCOTUS decided this case on June 30, 2022. SCOTUS determined that the EPA cannot set the existing source standard based on generation shifting, but gave the EPA the ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions at new and existing power plants. That is vague compared to the plaintiff’s complaint in their lawsuit.
For Futher Reading from the Case Files of SCOTUS on Sackett v. EPA
To determine when a wetland is part of adjacent “waters of the United States,” the Court agrees with the Rapanos plurality that the use of “waters” in §1362(7) may be fairly read to include only wetlands that are “indistinguishable from waters of the United States.” This occurs only when wetlands have “a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right, so that there is no clear demarcation between ‘waters’ and wetlands.” 547 U. S., at 742. In sum, the CWA extends to only wetlands that are “as a practical Cite as: 598 U. S. ____ (2023) 5 Syllabus matter indistinguishable from waters of the United States.” This requires the party asserting jurisdiction to establish “first, that the adjacent [body of water constitutes] . . . ‘water[s] of the United States’ (i.e., a relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters); and second, that the wetland has a continuous surface connection with that water, making it difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins. Rapanos, 547 U. S., at 755, 742. Pp. 18–22.
- The EPA’s interpretation is inconsistent with the CWA’s text and structure and clashes with “background principles of construction” that apply to the interpretation of the relevant provisions.
- The EPA claims that Congress ratified the EPA’s regulatory definition of “adjacent” when it amended the CWA to include the reference to “adjacent” wetlands in §1344(g)(1).
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, ET AL. ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT [May 25, 2023] JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case concerns a nagging question about the outer reaches of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the principal federal law regulating water pollution in the United States.1 By all accounts, the Act has been a great success. Before its enactment in 1972, many of the Nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams were severely polluted, and existing federal legislation had proved to be inadequate. Today, many formerly fetid bodies of water are safe for the use and enjoyment of the people of this country. There is, however, an unfortunate footnote to this success story: the outer boundaries of the Act’s geographical reach have been uncertain from the start. The Act applies to “the waters of the United States,” but what does that phrase mean? Does the term encompass any backyard that is soggy enough for some minimum period of time? Does it reach “mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, [or] playa lakes?” How about ditches, swimming pools, and puddles?
“We hold that the CWA extends to only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right, so that they are ‘indistinguishable’ from those waters,” Alito wrote, quoting from past court opinions. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.
All quotes are attributed to SupremeCourt.gov.