WASHINGTON, DC — In a historic and unprecedented decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with a Priest Lake couple in a property rights case, ruling that they have the right to go court and challenge an Environmental Protection Agency order that blocked construction of their new home and threatened draconian fines of as much as $75,000 a day.
The high court ruled unanimously in favor of Mike and Chantelle Sackett, who have been battling the EPA for the last five years after being told they could not get direct court review of EPA’s claim that their two-thirds of an acre parcel is wetlands.
“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 EPA is not beyond the control of the courts and the Constitution,” Mike Sackett said in a Pacific Legal Foundation press release.
“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,” he added.
The couple contended there was no reasonable way to challenge the order and dispute the wetland determination due to circumstances including their lot being located in a residential neighborhood with sewer lines.
The Sacketts bought the small parcel in 2005 with the intent of building a three-bedroom family home before getting blindsided by an EPA order to halt construction in 2007.
The EPA, and 9th Circuit Court, said the couple could not get direct court review of EPA’s claim that their parcel is wetlands and that they must obey an intrusive EPA compliance order or be hit with fines that could total in the millions of dollars.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, touted as a leading watchdog organization and representing the Sackett’s pro-bono, decided to sue the agency under the belief that the EPA deprived them of due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
“EPA is not above the law,” PLF Principal Attorney Damien M. Schiff 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.”
The ruling will allow the couple their day in court to challenge the EPA, but the real battle is just beginning.
The case has brought attention to the EPA’s reach and while the court only allowed a challenge to be brought, in a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alto stated that the law allowing EPA to demand compliance is overly broad.
“The reach of the Clean Water Act is notoriously unclear,” he wrote. “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 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 employees,” he added. “In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.”