The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the government from taking privately owned property without the due process of law, and without just compensation. However, what constitutes a government “taking” and can “due process” be preemptively satisfied by agency regulation? It seems in the case of “wetlands”, the EPA has overreached its authority.
Let us first attempt to identify “wetlands”. According to a comprehensive classification system developed in 1979, a site can be categorized as coastal or inland, yet the classification of “wetland” is not site-specific. Instead, “wetlands” is explained as a hierarchical, progressive structure of connected waters of the state. In what is termed the Cowardin Classification System, “wetlands” is an all-encompassing geographical feature. It consists of linked layers of species and subspecies, soil types and subtypes, an assortment of vegetation, along with various water sources, movements, and duration of presence. Simply stated, a piece of ground that can receive water (including rain) is part of the system that is “wetlands”. The Cowardin System, prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is an impressive, comprehensive report. Indeed, it has been the de facto standard for EPA employees in assigning a wetlands designation to private property. As a result, EPA’s authority and jurisdiction relating to “Navigable Waters” has multiplied.
As a result, many landowners have lost private property usage and development rights. Effectively, the property owner has suffered a “taking” by the federal government. Such was the case of Mike and Chantell Sackett, an Idaho couple who challenged the EPA’s enforcement actions under §404 (wetlands) of the Clean Water Act (CWA). In a 2013 decision, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the EPA. In essence, the agency could not deny the Sacketts a hearing to challenge the agency’s use of CWA authority and jurisdiction over their land. The Sacketts successfully argued the EPA violated their constitutional right to due process. The simple question before the Supreme Court was whether landowners have a right to challenge a legal order of the EPA? The answer was a resounding 9 to 0 “Yes”. The EPA worked to preclude the right to judicial review exercising self-assumed authority in designating wetlands. In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the court rejected EPA’s attempt to use the CWA as a blanket fulfillment of due process. Justice Samuel Alito concurred stating Congress should clarify ambiguities in the CWA.
In the case of Rapanos v. the United States, though the court came to no decision (the parties eventually settled), four Justices spoke against the EPA. Justice Scalia wrote the EPA’s use of the term “waters of the United States” is an overreach in identification of wetlands. The concurring Justices agreed. The court found that occasional, intermittent, or ephemeral water flows may have a hydrological connection. However, “are not sufficient to qualify a wetland as covered by the CWA; it must have a continuous surface connection”.
Likewise, in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Court ruled against EPA. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote the EPA overreached in its wetland designation of “isolated, abandoned sand and gravel pits with seasonal ponds, which provide migratory bird habitats”. Both the Rapanos and the SWANCC court opinions counter the Cowardin concept of all waters being connected in one wetlands system. Such decisions constitute a slap-of-the-hand by the Supreme Court to EPA and offer an opportunity to discuss the ever increasing dominance of the agency over the lives of everyday citizens.
America’s founders designed our government to serve the people. Increasingly citizens are left with little recourse but to ask the courts to assure their constitutional rights as threatened by dominant government agencies. The EPA, arguably being one of the most insidious, dictatorial federal agencies.
Fortunately, recent Supreme Court decisions and Justice Alito’s urging that Congress address ambiguities have triggered action by some. Several Senators have introduced S.980 a bill that attempts to clarify the CWA by explaining waters of the state are “Navigable-in-fact” and is “permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies…from streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes and are connected to waters that are navigable-in-fact“. Passing S. 980 would be a great start to corralling the EPA’s assault on private property rights. This, along with the Supreme Court ruling affirming the 5th amendment right to due process is an indication we are making headway.