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Supreme Court Sides With Private Property Owner in Landmark EPA Case

The victorious couple after the ruling

An Idaho couple is rejoicing today after the Supreme Court ruled in the pair's favor regarding a case against the EPA (Sackett v. EPA).

From the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court has sided with an Idaho couple in a property rights case, ruling they can go to court to challenge an Environmental Protection Agency order that blocked construction of their new home and threatened fines of more than $30,000 a day.

In 2007  the EPA halted private property owners Mike and Chantell Sackett from building a new home on their property adjacent to a scenic lake in Idaho. The reasoning? The agency said part of the property was a wetlands that could not be disturbed.

Stop Building Your Dream Home: The Sacketts' empty lot

The first phase of construction had already been completed on the private residence when federal officials showed up and ordered a halt in the work. A fine of $30,000 a day would be levied against the Sackett's were they to continue building.  The couple was then disallowed by the agency to obtain the permits needed to continue construction in local courts.

The Sacketts: Couple wins unprecedented Supreme Court case against EPA

In this case, the couple objected to the determination that their small lot contained wetlands that would be harmed by construction and argued there was no reasonable way to challenge the order without risking steep fines. The Sacketts were confounded at the EPA's findings because their property was a completely landlocked lot within an existing subdivision.  As Blaze writer Becket Adams recently reported, "When Chantelle Sackett asked for evidence, EPA pointed her to the National Fish and Wildlife Wetlands Inventory, which showed them that their lot… was not on an existing wetland."

Adams continued: 

Yep, according to the Wetlands Inventory, the Sackett’s property wasn’t on existing wetlands. So how did the EPA respond to this?

“The EPA responded [by issuing] what’s known as a compliance order, which said that the Sacketts were in violation of the Clean Water Act and subject to fines of up to $37,500 a day,” Reason reports.

(Related: Read our previous coverage on the story for more background)

The EPA's argument in court today stated that allowing property owners quick access to courts to contest federal orders would compromise the agency's ability to deal with water pollution via the Clean Water Act.

The majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia flatly rejects that notion.

"Compliance orders will remain an effective means of securing prompt voluntary compliance in those many cases where there is no substantial basis to question their validity," Scalia said.

But according to the Associated Press, there was some nuanced dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a separate opinion that the only issue decided by the court Wednesday is the Sacketts’ ability to contest the EPA finding that their property is subject to the Clean Water Act. The court did not decide largers issues, Ginsburg said.

“On that understanding, I join the court’s opinion,” she said.

Still, Justice Samuel Alito was clear on his critique of the EPA and wants more in the future, according to the same AP article:

In another separate opinion, Justice Samuel Alito called on Congress to clear up confusion over the reach of the Clean Water Act. Alito said that federal regulators could assert authority over any property that is wet for even part of the year, not just rivers and streams.

The court’s opinion “is better than nothing, but only clarification of the reach of the Clean Water Act can rectify the underlying problem,” Alito said.

(Related: Read more on the court's opinion)

In a statement, the Sacketts commended the ruling: “We are very thankful to the Supreme Court for affirming that we have rights, and that the EPA is not a law unto itself and that the EPA is not beyond the control of the courts and the Constitution.”

Their statement went on to attack the EPA's tactics: "The EPA used bullying and threats of terrifying fines, and has made our life hell for the past five years.  It said we could not go to court and challenge their bogus claim that our small lot had ‘wetlands’ on it.  As this nightmare went on, we rubbed our eyes and started to wonder if we were living in some totalitarian country."

Principal Attorney Damien M. Schiff noted after the ruling: “The EPA is not above the law," continuing on to say, "EPA will have to be prepared to show a reviewing court that its wetlands regulations are really necessary — not just a power trip.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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