WASHINGTON - Several conservative members of the Supreme Court criticized the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday for heavy-handed enforcement of rules affecting homeowners after the government told an Idaho couple they can't challenge an order declaring their future home site a "protected wetlands."
Justice Antonin Scalia assailed the "high-handedness" of the environmental agency when dealing with private property, and Justice Samuel Alito described some of the EPA's actions as "outrageous," arguing that most people would say "this kind of thing can't happen in the United States."
The EPA said that Mike and Chantell Sackett illegally filled in most of their 0.63-acre lot with dirt and rocks in preparation for building a home. The agency said the property is a wetlands that cannot be disturbed without a permit. The Sacketts had none.
The couple, who attended the Supreme Court arguments, said they had no reason to suspect there were wetlands on their property. They paid $23,000 for their property in 2005 and decided two years later to build a three-bedroom home. Workers spent three days filling in just under a half-acre of land.
Three EPA officials showed up, said they believed the land was wetlands, asked for a permit and told the workers to stop. Six months later, the EPA sent the order that triggered the court case. The Sacketts wanted to challenge that order, but lower courts have said that they cannot.
The EPA issues nearly 3,000 administrative compliance orders a year that call on alleged violators of environmental laws to stop what they're doing and repair the harm they've caused. Major business groups, homebuilders, road builders and agricultural interests all have joined the Sacketts in urging the court to make it easier to contest EPA compliance orders issued under several environmental laws.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wondered how far the Supreme Court should go in a ruling, noting that government agencies often threaten citations when people don't comply with the law. "Health inspectors go into restaurants all the time and say: `Unless you fix this, I'm going to give you a citation.' Fire inspectors, the same thing," he said.
The Sacketts' lawyer, Damien M. Schiff, argued that they weren't trying to take away EPA's power. Environmental groups say a purpose of the orders is to make it easier to negotiate a resolution without a protracted legal fight.
"Let EPA administer the act and issue compliance orders," Schiff said. "But let's also give homeowners a fair shake, too. Let them have their day in court to contest what the agency has done."
Alito leveled some of the strongest criticism against the EPA, noting that the Sacketts had to wait until the EPA sued them to even challenge the idea that there were wetlands on their property.
"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,"' Alito said. "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."
Chief Justice John Roberts said that because of the potential fines, few people are going to challenge the EPA's determinations.
"Because of the administrative compliance order, you're really never going to be put to the test, because most land owners aren't going to say, `I'm going to risk the $37,000 a day," Roberts said. "All EPA has to do is make whatever finding it wants, and realize that in 99 percent of the cases, it's never going to be put to the test."
The EPA's normal procedure is to contact the homeowner before issuing a compliance order, Justice Department lawyer Malcolm Stewart said. A wetlands biologist has also confirmed to The Associated Press that he advised the Sacketts in May 2007 that their property was a wetlands and that there were wetlands on three sides of their land. The Sacketts say that in 2010, other wetlands consultants examined their land and concluded that the first one was wrong.
If the Sacketts "had wanted a judicial resolution of the coverage question without subjecting themselves to potential penalties, they could have filed a permit application before discharging, they could have gotten review there. All we're saying is they can't discharge fill, wait to see whether EPA notices, and then insist upon immediate judicial review if EPA notices and objects," Stewart said.
The justices will rule by summer.