Sackett Oral Argument

At SCOTUSBlog, Lyle Denniston characterizes the oral argument in Sackett v. EPA as “A Weak Defense of EPA.” Perhaps that’s because the EPA’s position, applied in this case, is difficult to square with traditional notions of due process.  Denniston highlights one passage of the oral argument (transcript) that highlighted the nature of the government’s position:

JUSTICE ALITO: Mr. Stewart, if you related the facts of this case as they come to us to an ordinary homeowner, don’t you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can’t happen in the United States? You don’t — you buy property to build a house. You think maybe there is a little drainage problem in part of your lot, so you start to build the house and then you get an order from the EPA which says: You have filled in wetlands, so you can’t build your house; remove the fill, put in all kinds of plants; and now you have to let us on your premises whenever we want to. You have to turn over to us all sorts of documents, and for every day that you don’t do all this you are accumulating a potential fine of $75,000. And by the way, there is no way you can go to court to challenge our determination that this is a wetlands until such time as we choose to sue you.

The federal government’s attorney did not have much of an answer other than to say that, in most cases, there would have been some prior communication between the landowner and the EPA or Army Corps alerting the landowner to the potential problem, at which point the landowner could have filed a permit. Yet whether a permit is necessary in the first place is part of what is at issue, which prompted Chief Justice Roberts to characterize the federal government’s position as: Since you didn’t ask us whether we could regulate your property, we get to do it. After all, Roberts noted later, most landowners will not violate the order and risk the resulting accumulation of penalties just to get their day in court. As Justice Scalia noted later, in most cases, if the government is threatening to prosecute you, rather than “wait for the prosecutor to drop the hammer,” you may go to court to seek a declaratory judgment to resolve the question. Yet here, where the government has done more than merely threaten prosecution, no such pre-enforcement review is available. Worse, refusing to comply with the government’s order is, itself, a legal violation. It would be one thing to defend this sort of system where time is of the essence — such as where prompt action is necessary to prevent severe, ongoing contamination, such as from a hazardous waste spill. It’s quite another to try and defend this as “due process” when what is at issue is a the deposit of clean fill on a half-acre plot of land that may not even be within the scope of federal regulatory jurisdiction in the first place.

UPDATE: At Legal Planet, Richard Frank comments:

There seems little doubt from the oral arguments that the Sacketts will prevail before the Supreme Court, and that the lower court decisions will be reversed. (Having attended today’s arguments, I count at least seven justices siding with the Sacketts, and it’s conceivable that the opinion may even be unanimous.) The more difficult–and intriguing–question is how sweeping or narrow a decision will the justices issue? Will the anticipated ruling against EPA be confined to enforcement of the Clean Water Act, or might it extent to a host of other federal environmental laws that EPA frequently enforces through the issuance of ACOs? And will the Court base its decision on exclusively on statutory grounds, or will it follow the urging of several of Sacketts’ amici to find that the lack of judicial review of ACOs represents an unconstitutional deprivation of due process?

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.