Photo by Joel Mann. Some rights reserved.
UPDATE: Supreme Court Renders Decision in Sackett v. EPA
In the spring of 2007, Chantelle and Michael Sackett began laying dirt and rock as a preliminary step to building a three-story house on their property on idyllic Priest Lake, in Idaho. Priest Lake, which rests snuggly in the Northern portion of the Idaho panhandle, is a federally recognized wetland, and has a burgeoning tourist industry that demands preservation of the flora and fauna of the area.
Personal side note: I have been to Priest Lake, albeit when I was very little. It was breathtaking – one cursory glance at the picture used on its Wikipedia page will confirm as much.
Non-personal, non-pertinent side note: The largest Lake trout ever caught on record in the United States was caught at Priest Lake, and weighed in at over 57 lbs! I can see why this lake is worth protecting – it’s magic!
So, just weeks after the Sacketts began work on their Priest Lake house, they were notified by the EPA that they had violated the Clean Water Act by beginning work on their property, which sits on the federally recognized wetlands, without first obtaining the proper permits. The EPA ordered the Sacketts to cease work immediately and to remove all added dirt, to return the dug-up soil, and to replant the property with vegetation, or face fines of up to $32,500 per day. In addition, the EPA told the Sacketts that they would have to wait three years, to allow for regrowth on the property, before applying for the necessary permits. The Sacketts felt the EPA’s actions to be unjust, and made a formal complaint to the Supreme Court asking for the right to challenge the EPA’s decision in a federal court. In September 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Sacketts had no grounds to bring a case against the EPA until federal regulators sought to enforce the threatened fines. The Sacketts were upset – they felt they had no avenue to defend themselves against the government agency. In a youtube video put together by the conservative law firm Pacific Legal Foundation, Chantelle Sackett calls the EPA “ungovernable,” and laments that “what’s right is right, and I get so sick and tired of the government telling us what to do.” Today, however, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the Sacketts’ argument once their new term begins in October, signaling a new chance for the Sacketts to get their voices heard.
That should bring us up to date. Without speculating on the political beliefs of the Sacketts or drawing up partisan lines, it is clear that this case raises larger questions about the state of the US justice system. With the simultaneous rise of both a “don’t tread on me” attitude and a conservationist awareness in contemporary America, cases such as this one present a grey area – on the one hand, you have property owners who feel they have a right to build on what they own. On the other, you have the EPA defending a territory which clearly has environmental significance, and is federally protected. Do citizens accused by government agencies of violating environmental laws have a right to immediate defense in the federal courts? Whatever the Court’s decision, it’s bound to be an important one.
Update: Read more about the Sackett case and the January 9, 2012, oral hearings here.