Still Going, After All This Time: the Sacketts, EPA and the Clean Water Act

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On August 16, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the Idaho property of Michael and Chantell Sackett was a regulated wetlands under the then-controlling 1977 EPA rules defining “waters of the United States,” and that the Sacketts dredging and filling of their property was subject to regulation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or EPA. EPA’s case, as it has been for many years, was based on 2008 EPA and Corps inspection reports and Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test as the controlling opinion in the 2006 Supreme Court case, Rapanos v. United States. The Sacketts’ argument was that the text of the Clean Water Act, as interpreted by Justice Scalia and three other Justices, was controlling, but for several years, the Ninth Circuit has relied on Justice Kennedy’s opinion in these CWA controversies. The court’s opinion expressed considerable sympathy for the Sacketts as they negotiated the thicket of EPA’s regulatory processes, but it could not disregard circuit precedent. A few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous decision, that EPA’s then extant administrative compliance orders were arbitrary and capricious. (See Sackett v. US, 566 US 120 (2015).) After that decision, the case was remanded to the federal district court, where it lingered for several more years.

It will be interesting to see if there will be another Supreme Court challenge to the Ninth Circuit’s disposition of the Sacketts’ Clean Water Act jurisdictional arguments.

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