The case is Sackett v EPA.
By Ilya Somin | The Volokh Conspiracy
[Description of the Issue from Alito’s concurring opinion]
The position taken in this case by the Federal Government—a position that the Court now squarely rejects—would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) employees.
The reach of the Clean Water Act is notoriously unclear. Any piece of land that is wet at least part of the year is in danger of being classified by EPA employees as wetlands covered by the Act, and according to the Federal Government, if property owners begin to construct a home on a lot that the agency thinks possesses the requisite wetness, the property owners are at the agency’s mercy. The EPA may issue a compliance order demanding that the owners cease construction, engage in expensive remedial measures, and abandon any use of the property. If the owners do not do the EPA’s bidding, they may be fined up to $75,000 per day ($37,500 for violating the Act and another $37,500 for violating the compliance order). And if the owners want their day in court to show that their lot does not include covered wetlands, well, as a practical matter, that is just too bad. Until the EPA sues them, they are blocked from access to the courts, and the EPA may wait as long as it wants before deciding to sue. By that time, the potential fines may easily have reached the millions. In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.
Yes, that situation should be unthinkable. But not only was it thinkable, it has obtained for more than a decade. An EPA determination that your property was a “Wetland” could not be challenged in court unless the EPA chose to bring suit against you in support of their order.
The Court bases its decision on statutory grounds, ruling that the property owners are entitled to judicial review of their case under the Administrative Procedure Act. It therefore did not reach the issue of whether such review is also required by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which states that the government may not deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The scope of the decision is therefore limited. And, as Justice Alito goes on to explain, “the combination of the uncertain reach of the Clean Water Act and the draconian penalties imposed for the sort of violations alleged in this case still leaves most property owners with little practical alternative but to dance to the EPA’s tune.” He urges Congress to clarify the scope of the CWA so that property owners will at least have a clearer indication of the scope of EPA authority over their land. Despite these limitations, the decision is a significant victory for property rights, and a rare case of unanimity on an important property rights issue.
I find it outrageous that any regulatory agency of any government in the United States can issue direction to private individuals under threat of heavy fines without being subject to challenge in the courts.