Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sackett v. EPA: Quotes from oral argument

Any attorney who has argued in open court will tell you that you cannot always predict how a court will rule based upon the questions asked from the bench.  Still, the inquiry can tell you a lot about what a judge is thinking and what issues he or she views as most important.  Sackett v. EPA, the recent wetlands case before the United State Supreme Court, provided its observers with a lot of insight into what issues are important to the justices.  Here are few of the more interesting quotes from the oral argument: (Mr. Stewart = EPA's counsel):

Justice Alito asked:  “Mr. Stewart, if you related the facts of this case as they come to us to an ordinary homeowner, don't you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can't happen in the United States? You don't -- you buy property to build a house. 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.  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 Roberts:  ”That's what you would do? You would say, I don't think there are wetlands on my property but EPA does, so I'm going to take out all the fill, I'm going to plant herbaceous trees or whatever it is, and I will worry about whether to -- that way, I'll just do what the government tells me I should do.”

Justice Breyer: “for 75 years the courts have interpreted statutes with an eye towards permitting judicial review, not the opposite. And yet -- so here you are saying that this statute that says nothing about it precludes review, and then the second thing you say is that this isn't final. So I read the order. It looks like about as final a thing as I have ever seen.”  

In response to Mr. Stewart's suggestion that the EPA might alter its wetlands determination during litigation, Justice Alito responded: “Well, that makes the EPA's conduct here even more outrageous.  We think now that this is -- these are wetlands that -- that qualify, so we're going to hit you with this compliance order, but, you know, when we look into it more thoroughly in the future, we might change our mind?”

To the read the full transcript, click here.


  1. Very interesting and thought provoking, Todd! Thanks for sharing!

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