JUST PLAIN NUTS REDUX

Posted on July 2, 2020 by Dick Stoll

In my ACOEL post of June 10, 2019, I led with this:

Seth Jaffe’s recent ACOEL post correctly laments that the current judicial review regime for EPA’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule is ‘just plain nuts.’  He points to two recent conflicting federal district court decisions, leaving the Obama WOTUS rule in place in one area and remanding it in another.”

I reinforced the situational nuttiness by noting that after several federal district courts had issued opinions, the Obama WOTUS rule continued to apply in 23 states, but was blocked in 26 states.  (New Mexico was split by counties!)  And to make the situation even crazier, the 23 states where the rule remained in place were hardly contiguous – looking at a map, it would appear someone threw darts.

My 2019 post pleaded with Congress to add “just a few words” to the Clean Water Act to bring it into accord with all the other major federal environmental statutes – by simply providing for direct Court of Appeals review of all nationally applicable CWA rules.  Even if parties filed in several Circuits under such a regime, federal statutes provide a procedure assuring that all filings would be consolidated in a single Court.

Well guess what?  Congress somehow ignored my 2019 post, and the new Trump WOTUS rule became effective recently.  So now we are all set for another round of total craziness. 

To wit, Seth just posted a report of one district court allowing the Trump rule to remain in effect, and another court enjoining the new rule. More rulings from various district courts are almost certain to follow, and they again are almost certain to be inconsistent.

My 2019 post concluded by recognizing the polarized political times we live in.  But I questioned why it should be polarizing to provide direct Court of Appeals review of a critical EPA rule to avoid this crazy patchwork of inconsistencies throughout the nation. 

Come on now!  Direct Court of Appeals review for national rules has for decades been the heavy norm in federal environmental statutes.  Should this be considered a liberal vs. conservative, or Democrat vs. Republican, or pro-business vs. pro-environmental issue?  I sure don’t understand how.  Can’t Congress please just do something rational here?

Surprise! New WOTUS Rule Leads to Conflicting Rulings

Posted on June 30, 2020 by Rick Glick

It was clear to everyone, including this humble blogger, that EPA’s new rule defining Waters of the United States (WOTUS) would bring little clarity to this fraught area of law.  The rule took effect June 22, but court challenges were already underway, and already we have conflicting rulings, described in this space by Seth Jaffe with his usual alacrity. 

Regardless of what ultimately emerges from this morass, recall that the states have authority of their own and that is probably where practitioners should be focusing in advising clients.  On the same day the WOTUS rule came into effect, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued a statement including a not too subtle warning about discharging pollutants into state waters without benefit of a permit. 

The ODEQ statement also speaks to state authority under CWA section 401, the subject of another recent EPA rulemaking, and a continuing source of litigation and uncertainty.  As Seth notes, the new WOTUS and 401 rules are complementary.  In its statement, ODEQ encourages project proponents to meet with the agency early for an evaluation of a “project plan.”  Such pre-application meetings are always a good idea—better to anticipate and address issues before they become controversial. 

All of this is pretty interesting for lawyers, but frustrating, time consuming and expensive for clients trying to discern a critical path for development projects.  Surely there is a better approach to ensuring clean water, but it is hard to see one emerging soon.

 

Woe Is WOTUS, Redux

Posted on June 30, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

Sometimes, history repeats itself.  Sometimes, that is not a good thing.

After the Obama WOTUS rule was promulgated in 2015, the challenges came fast and furious, and in multiple forums.  The Supreme Court, as I put it, adopted the “give me a break” theory over the “just plain nuts” theory, and ruled that challenges to the rule had to be heard in district courts.  The text of the statute made pretty clear that such challenges did belong in district courts, and the Supreme Court felt no need to address concerns that it was just plain nuts to have multiple courts reviewing this issue, leading to a patchwork of different rulings.  That’s Congress’s problem!

As anyone who remembers those halcyon days can attest, chaos did indeed result, with roughly half the states ending up subject to the Obama rule and half subject to the prior rule and the post-Rapanos guidance.

Now comes the Trump WOTUS rule, which became effective yesterday.  It looks like déjà vu all over again.  On Friday, two courts weighed in, with a judge in California declining to enjoin the rule and suggesting very strongly that EPA would prevail with its argument that the rule is entitled to Chevron deference, while a judge in Colorado enjoined the new rule, concluding that five justices in Rapanos precluded the new rule’s interpretation of WOTUS, thus barring any reliance on Chevron.

Other than saying “I told you so,” I think that the biggest takeaway so far is that, to the extent that the California decision carries the day, it’s also good news for fans of EPA’s recently released rule on section 401 water quality certifications.  It basically adopts lock, stock, and barrel EPA’s rationale for why it can ignore a seemingly contrary Supreme Court decision.  The short version is that the Supreme Court Brand X decision holds that, where the Supreme Court upholds an agency interpretation of an ambiguous statutory provision, that does not preclude the same agency from later adopting a contrary interpretation, so long as the new interpretation is also permissible under Chevron.

Time will tell which position prevails, at least in the lower courts.  This one does seem likely to make it back to SCOTUS.  For better or worse – likely worse – we might finally get some clarity on the definition of the waters of the United States.  Until then, I am confident that chaos will reign.

And So It Goes, New WOTUS Rule Final

Posted on January 24, 2020 by Rick Glick

The EPA today announced that the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, jointly proposed by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in June 2019, is now final.  The new rule replaces the 2015 Obama Administration’s rule, which EPA and the Corps rescinded last October. 

The Clean Water Act confers federal jurisdiction over “navigable” waters, defined in the Act as “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”  Congress left it to the agencies and courts to add meat to this skeletal definition. As it turns out, that has been no easy task. 

The agencies have tried multiple times to bring clarity to the scope of CWA jurisdiction, resulting in an enormous body of litigation and a few Supreme Court cases.  These cases culminated in the 2006 ruling in Rapanos v. U.S., in which a divided Supreme Court agreed that the government had overreached, but could not agree as to how.  Justice Scalia, writing for the plurality, would have limited jurisdiction to running waters and adjacent wetlands.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy instead would have conferred jurisdiction where there is a “significant nexus” to a navigable water.

The subsequent 2015 rule adopted the Kennedy approach, whereas the new 2020 rule follows Scalia.  As reported here, the new rules are not likely to implement the lofty goals of the CWA, to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”  That is the conclusion of EPA’s own Science Advisory Board:

At the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) meeting on June 5-6, 2019, the SAB discussed the scientific and technical underpinnings of the proposed WOTUS rule and concluded that aspects of the proposed rule are in conflict with established science, the existing WOTUS rule developed based on the established science, and the objectives of the Clean Water Act.

Several states and environmental organizations have announced their intent to challenge the rule’s disregard for what is known about the interconnectedness of wetlands and running waters.  As quoted in the New York Times coverage of the new rule, ACOEL’s own Patrick Parenteau concisely summarized the case:  “The legal standing all has to do with whether you have a rational basis for what you’re doing. And when you have experts saying you’re not adhering to the science, that’s not rational, it’s arbitrary.”

Lawyers advising clients as to the reach of CWA jurisdiction can only recommend caution.  We will not have clarity on the scope of WOTUS any time soon.

Whiskey In The Punch Bowl At SCOTUS: What’s The Point (Source)?

Posted on December 18, 2019 by Theodore Garrett

If you have wondered if confusion over the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act may drive one to drink, read the transcript in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, SCOTUS No 18-260, argued on November 6, 2019. 

The issue in Maui is whether a NPDES permit is required for the discharge of pollutants from injection wells that reach the ocean by migrating through groundwater.  The district court and court of appeals held that a permit is required.  The issue has potentially important ramifications for affected parties who discharge pollutants that may eventually migrate to waters of the United States (WOTUS), and interested parties will await the Supreme Court’s decision in Maui to see if it offers a workable solution.

Both sides seem to agree that the relevant question is whether there is a discharge from a point source to WOTUS.  The Solicitor General, perhaps in an early holiday mood, offered a punchbowl analogy: “For example, if at my home I pour whiskey from a bottle into a flask and then I bring the flask to a party at a different location and I pour whiskey into the punch bowl there, nobody would say that I had added whiskey to the punch from the bottle.”  Under this approach, where a pipe discharges to land or groundwater, one would not need a NPDES permit because the discharge was not from a point source to WOTUS. 

Not to be outdone on the analogy front, the Wildlife Fund’s lawyer took the Court shopping for groceries.  “When you buy groceries, you say they came from the store, not from your car, even though that's the last place they were before they entered your house.”  In the same vein, he argued, pollutants in the ocean that came from the county’s injection wells thus require a permit.

The Justices’ comments reflected difficulty in distinguishing discharges requiring a permit and those that do not.  Perhaps tough analogies make for tough decisions.

With respect to the Wildlife Fund’s position, Justice Alito offered the example of “an ordinary family out in the country that has a septic tank, and they buy it from somebody who installs them and they get the building permit that's required by that rural municipality.” What if they discover years later that pollutants are leaking out of the septic tank and migrating to waters of the United States.  Would they be violating the Clean Water Act for lack of a permit?  The Fund’s lawyer, apparently struggling, said that if the homeowner would have no reason to believe the pollutants from the septic tank would get to navigable waters, “they wouldn't be held liable.”  When that didn’t seem to get traction, he moved to the concept of traceability.  But noting that “water does run downhill,” Justice Breyer said that “traceability and causation don't quite seem to do it, “asking plaintiff’s counsel if he had “any sort of fall-back” position “that would cure my worry.”  Justice Gorsuch posited hypothetically that discharges from a septic tank are foreseeable and will end up in waters of the United States: “what limiting principle do you have to offer the Court?”  Justice Alito added that the term "from" could be read very broadly to cover a discharge “ by some means, no matter how remote” that reaches WOTUS: “So what concerns me is whether there is any limiting principle that can be found in the text and is workable and does not lead to absurd results.”

The Justices also had problems with the county’s position. Justice Breyer expressed concern with preventing evasion, asking what would happen if one decided to end a pipe a few feet from a river or the ocean.  “Now you know perfectly well that it'll drip down into the ground and it'll be carried out into the navigable water.”  In that case,  Justice Beyer said, “what we have is, I take it, an absolute road map for people who want to avoid the point source regulation.” The county argues that such discharges should be regulated under state groundwater programs.  But Justice Sotomayor found that to be a problem: “Because it presumes the state will regulate, and some states don't.”  Later on, she asked rhetorically: “Why are you doing what you're doing? This is fairly traceable to you in large quantities. The state didn't control you.”  Justice Kagan said that the question isn’t whether there is a back stop, but rather whether the statute requires a permit: “So, here, it's from a point source, which is the well, and it's to navigable waters, which is the ocean, and it's an addition.  How does this statute not apply?”

The Court will discuss these issues in conference and issue its decision in due course.  One might posit that a hydrologic connection should be dispositive, but in Rapanos, the Court split 4-4-1 on the issue of the scope of WOTUS, and the composition of the court has changed since then.  And in the Sackett case, where the plaintiffs prevailed 9-0, the plaintiffs complained of uncertainty whether they needed a permit, a factor which might be of concern to some Justices in the present case.  Will there be a majority opinion for the Court containing a workable “limiting principle?”  Stay tuned.

SCOTUS Remands: Miles to Go Before I Sleep?

Posted on October 8, 2019 by Ed Tormey

As attorneys we are fascinated by U.S. Supreme Court cases, the ultimate jurisprudence in our country.  These decisions are analyzed, discussed and debated by legal scholars and practitioners alike.  What is often overlooked is the statement at the end of many of these cases: “we remand the case for further proceedings.”  While we have what we want from the case – Supreme Court precedent – the parties to the case still have a tough row to hoe working back through the federal court system.  It is worth asking what ultimately happened in those cases.  Who won?  After all isn’t the purpose of litigation to pick winners and losers? 

For curiosity’s sake I picked four Supreme Court cases where property owners and the federal government battled over WOTUS wetland jurisdiction issues under the Clean Water Act: Hawkes Co. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 136 S.Ct. 1807 (2016); Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, 566 U.S. 120 (2012); and Rapanos v. United States / Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  In each of these cases, the property owner was successful in having the federal government’s position remanded back to a lower court for further proceedings.  But did they ultimately win?  

The Hawkes case was brought by three peat mining companies who were seeking approval to discharge material onto wetlands located on property that the miners owned and hoped to mine.  The Supreme Court held that the Army Corps of Engineers’ jurisdictional determination was final agency action judicially reviewable under the federal Administrative Procedure Act.  After the Supreme Court decision, the case was sent back to federal district court for consideration of the Army Corps’ jurisdiction over the wetlands.  The district court held that the Clean Water Act was not applicable to the wetlands in question, and granted summary judgment in favor of the miners.  2017 WL 359170 (D. Minn.). The court went further and enjoined the Army Corps from ever exercising jurisdiction over the land.  So here we have a clear win for the property owners. 

In Sackett, the property owners discharged material into what the EPA claimed to be wetlands.  The EPA issued an administrative order requiring the Sacketts to restore and provide access to the site.  The Sacketts asked the EPA for a hearing, but that request was denied.  The Supreme Court remanded the case back after holding that EPA’s administrative order was effectively a “final agency action” and thus reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act.  After a significant time gap, the district court granted EPA’s motion for summary judgment finding that the property in question was a WOTUS.  The Sacketts have appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  For now, we have a clear win for the government. 

The holding of Rapanos/Carabell is well-known for its lack of lack of clarity.  I will not attempt to add any more confusion.  What is pertinent here is that the case was remanded back for further proceedings to determine if two sets of Michigan property developers had WOTUS issues related to their planned development.  The first developer, John Rapanos, had backfilled three wetland areas without a permit.  EPA and Rapanos ultimately entered into a consent decree whereby Rapanos did not confirm or deny any violation of law but nevertheless agreed to pay a fine of $150,000.  In addition, Rapanos agreed to construct 100 acres of wetlands to mitigate the 54 acres he had backfilled.  Finally, Rapanos agreed to designate 134.60 acres of land as conservation areas protected under conservation easements.  As a settlement, neither side walked away with everything they wanted.  But I would imagine that the government is chalking this up as a win.

June and Keith Carabell were also litigants against the federal government after the Army Corps denied their request for a permit to develop a wetland adjacent to a drainage ditch.  After remand by the Supreme Court, it appears that the Carabells have not had any further conflict with the Army Corps and the court has closed the case.  But it does appear that the property owners may still want to develop the land.

There you have it.  Four cases with only one clear cut victory for property owners, despite promising holdings from the Supreme Court.  And in most of these cases, the Supreme Court’s involvement in the matter was far from the end of the litigation.  For example, in Carabell the matter is still outstanding thirteen years later.  In Sackett, it’s been seven years since the Supreme Court decision and the parties are still litigating this matter. In Rapanos, it took three years for the parties to settle the matter after the decision. 

So while we enjoy reading a SCOTUS opinion, we should remember that the parties’ involvement in that case is often far from over and far from a clear victory or defeat. 

Environmental Protection Is an Afterthought at the Environmental Protection Agency

Posted on September 17, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers promulgated the final rule repealing the 2015 rule defining the Waters of the United States. The repeal rule is 172 pages in its pre-publication version.  The word “science” is used 18 times in those 172 pages.  Almost all of them are used in quotes from the 2015 rule or characterizations of the intent of the 2015 rule.

I did not find a single sentence in the repeal rule stating that the science does not support the 2015 rule.  As I noted when the Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued, the mission of EPA and the Corps is to protect the Waters of the United States.  If they’ve concluded that the text of the Clean Water Act doesn’t give them the authority needed to do so, the Administration could certainly propose amendments to the CWA to give them that authority.

That’s what used to be called “governing.”

Woe is WOTUS

Posted on June 7, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

When the Supreme Court decided that the district courts had jurisdiction over challenges to the Obama administration WOTUS rule, I described it as a victory of the “give me a break” doctrine of statutory interpretation over the “just plain nuts” theory.  I also noted that the Supreme Court had the luxury of ignoring the chaos that would ensue.

Whatever one may think of the merits of the competing theories, two district court decisions in the past week have made clear that it is, indeed, just plain nuts to have these cases before the district courts.

First up, Texas v. EPA, in which Judge George Hanks (an Obama appointee, no less) ruled that EPA and the Corps of Engineers had violated the Administrative Procedure Act in two ways by promulgating the 2015 Rule.  First, while the proposed rule had defined “adjacent waters” based hydrogeological criteria, the final rule used specific numerical distance criteria instead.  The Court concluded that the use of distance criteria was not sufficiently anticipated in the proposed rule and thus EPA violated the APA when it failed to take comment on the new approach.  Judge Hanks also concluded that the 2015 Rule violated the APA because the Agencies relied on what is known as the “Final Connectivity Report,” even though the comment period closed before the Final Connectivity Report was available.  As a result, Judge Hanks remanded the 2015 Rule to the Agencies “for proceedings consistent with this order.”  Of course, the Agencies have already announced that they intend to replace the 2015 Rule, so I think we all know what those proceedings will be.

Next up, Oklahoma v. EPA, in which Judge Claire Eagan (a Bush appointee, no less!), refused to issue a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the 2015 Rule.  Simply put, Judge Eagan was not persuaded by any of the declarations submitted by the plaintiffs that they would suffer irreparable harm if the 2015 Rule were to remain in effect in Oklahoma.  She described them as “speculative.”  This was particularly troubling because:

the 2015 Rule has been in effect for varying periods of time since this case was filed, and the State can identify no evidence of an aggressive expansion of federal regulation of Oklahoma waters. … This case has been pending for nearly four years, and the Court would have anticipated a showing of substantial, actual harm in support of a motion for preliminary injunction.

We now have a situation where an Obama appointee has remanded the 2015 Rule and a Bush appointee has refused to enjoin its enforcement.  I do get some pleasure from these two judges upsetting preconceived notions in this partisan age about what judges do and how they decide.

Beyond that, however, I have no idea what these cases mean for the enforcement of the 2015 Rule.  I understand that this may all soon be moot, but in the meantime, it’s hard to defend this as a logical system of judicial review of agency action.  Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that it’s just plain nuts.

2019 WOTUS Rule Seeks to Make the Complex Simple—It Won’t Work

Posted on June 6, 2019 by Rick Glick

What is the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act?  The Act applies to “navigable waters”, which are defined as the “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” That’s all the CWA says about jurisdiction.  Congress left it to the implementing agencies—EPA and the Corps of Engineers—and the courts to define the contours of CWA jurisdiction.  In the 45 years following enactment, we are not much closer to clarity. 

The 2019 proposed “waters of the U. S.” or WOTUS rule is the latest attempt and, like all its predecessors, it has generated a lot of controversy.  Setting aside for the moment whether the rule is ultimately adopted and survives the inevitable court challenges, will it achieve the CWA’s object “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters”?  Unfortunately, the approach taken in the rule seeks an easy resolution to a complex problem as it avoids the interconnectedness of natural systems.  That approach will be of limited use in meeting the CWA’s objective.

The central strategy underlying the CWA is adoption by the states of water quality standards.  The standards would be protected through grant funding of public treatment facilities on the one hand, and on the other, a regulatory program allowing for limited discharges of pollutants or filling of wetlands to ensure attainment of standards.  Early cases looking at discharges or fills subject to the CWA stressed whether the receiving waters were “navigable in fact,” that is, capable of carrying interstate commerce.  However, regulations adopted by the Corps of Engineers extended jurisdiction to tributaries and adjacent wetlands, as degradation of these results in degradation of the navigable waters.  These regulations also included certain intermittent streams among WOTUS.

In its 2006 decision in Rapanos v. U. S., a majority of the Supreme Court found the regulations too broad, but did not quite agree as to why.  Writing for the plurality, Justice Scalia criticized the Corps for regulatory overreach and argued for a common sense, dictionary understanding of WOTUS:

In sum, on its only plausible interpretation, the phrase “the waters of the United States” includes only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water “forming geographic features” that are described in ordinary parlance as “streams[,] … oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.” See Webster’s Second 2882. The phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall. 

In other words, if you can see it and your feet get wet when you stand on it, the CWA applies.  Applying his usual strict constructionist approach, Justice Scalia found no statutory justification for a nuanced approach to jurisdiction.  By Executive Order, President Trump directed EPA and the Corps to replace the Obama WOTUS rule with one based on Justice Scalia’s interpretation, and the proposed rules do just that.

Will this approach serve the stated objective of the CWA to protect our waters?  Justice Kennedy, in his concurring opinion in Rapanos, thought not.  He chastised both the plurality and the dissent for not applying the test established by the Court just five years earlier in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook Cty. v. Army Corps of Engineers.  That case pegged jurisdiction to whether there is a “significant nexus” between the wetland in question and a navigable waterway.  In SWANCC, the Court rejected Corps regulations that imposed jurisdiction over isolated wetlands because they served as habitat for migratory birds.  That was not, per the Court, enough to show a significant nexus between those wetlands and a navigable waterway. 

However, in Rapanos, Justice Kennedy argued that the Court must do the SWANCC analysis, with all its inherent complexity, before simply concluding there is no jurisdiction:

Taken together [prior Court opinions show that], the connection between a nonnavigable water or wetland and a navigable water may be so close, or potentially so close, that the Corps may deem the water or wetland a “navigable water” under the Act. In other instances, as exemplified by SWANCC, there may be little or no connection. Absent a significant nexus, jurisdiction under the Act is lacking.

* * *

The required nexus must be assessed in terms of the statute’s goals and purposes. Congress enacted the law to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” 33 U. S. C. §1251(a), and it pursued that objective by restricting dumping and filling in “navigable waters,” §§1311(a), 1362(12). With respect to wetlands, the rationale for Clean Water Act regulation is, as the Corps has recognized, that wetlands can perform critical functions related to the integrity of other waters—functions such as pollutant trapping, flood control, and runoff storage. 33 CFR §320.4(b)(2). Accordingly, wetlands possess the requisite nexus, and thus come within the statutory phrase “navigable waters,” if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as “navigable.” When, in contrast, wetlands’ effects on water quality are speculative or insubstantial, they fall outside the zone fairly encompassed by the statutory term “navigable waters.”

The analysis called for by Justice Kennedy is complex and requires professional judgment.  Granting agencies the discretion to exercise that judgment makes many uncomfortable, but such discretion is inherent in our current framework in which Congress provides vague direction that agencies must implement.  There is much talk about the Supreme Court eviscerating Auer and Chevron deference to agency interpretations of their own rules or statute, but surely there must be some leeway for agencies that courts can find acceptable.  If not, already ponderous and glacially slow regulatory processes will get only more so. 

The Obama WOTUS rule took the Kennedy approach and then tried to put certain sideboards around it to determine CWA jurisdiction, which played to mixed reviews—a million comments and scores of legal challenges were filed.  The Trump WOTUS rule swings the pendulum toward the simplistic Scalia approach, which will also draw broad opposition.

Getting clarity on the scope of CWA jurisdiction has proved elusive.  However, in our zeal for clarity and preventing overly aggressive federal regulation, we must not lose sight of the clarion purpose Congress gave in enacting the CWA in the first place.

Two Strikes Against the Administration’s WOTUS Suspension Rule

Posted on December 10, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

In August, a judge in South Carolina issued a nationwide injunction against the “Suspension Rule,” which delayed the effective date of the 2015 Waters of the United States rule.  Now, a judge in Washington has gone even further.  Judge John Coughenour has vacated the rule.

The core of the new decision is the same as that in South Carolina.  By refusing to take comment on the impact of the delay in the effective date of the WOTUS rule, the Administration acted arbitrarily and capriciously and thus violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

For my non-lawyer readers wondering what the difference is between a nationwide injunction against the Suspension Rule and vacatur of the Rule, I’m picturing a petulant President Trump, sitting in a corner.  First, his teacher tells him that he can’t play with his shiny new toy – that’s an injunction.  Then, still not satisfied, another teacher comes by and takes the toy away completely.  That’s vacatur.

How Much Does Trump Even Care About Deregulation?

Posted on September 13, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Rick Glick’s September 11 post discusses Judge David Norton’s August 2018 decision to issue a nationwide injunction against the Trump Administration’s “Suspension Rule,” which delayed implementation of the Obama Waters of the United States RuleAs noted in Rick's post, that case was not about the merits of the WOTUS rule.  It was simply about the Trump administration’s failure to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act in promulgating the Suspension Rule.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

The Administration’s failure to comply seems so obvious that one has to wonder whether the Administration even cared whether the Suspension Rule could survive judicial review.  Indeed, this case seems part of a clear pattern.  The Court noted as much in quoting a summary of such cases from the plaintiffs’ brief:

Clean Air Council v. Pruitt (vacating the EPA’s attempt to temporarily stay a Clean Air Act regulation without “comply[ing] with the … APA”); Open Communities All. v. Carson, (enjoining the defendant agency’s attempt, “without notice and comment or particularized evidentiary findings, … [to] delay[] almost entirely by two years implementation of a rule” adopted by the previous administration); Pennsylvania v. Trump (enjoining two new “Interim Final Rules” based on the defendant agencies’ attempt to “bypass notice and comment rule making”); Nat’l Venture Capital Ass’n v. Duke (vacating the defendant agency’s “decision to delay the implementation of an Obama-era immigration rule … without providing notice or soliciting comment from the public”); California v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt. (holding that the defendant agency’s attempt to postpone a regulation’s compliance dates “after the rule’s effective date had already passed … violated the APA’s notice and comment requirements by effectively repealing the [r]ule without engaging in the process for obtaining comment from the public”); Becerra v. U.S. Dep’t of the Interior, (holding that the defendant agency violated the APA in “fail[ing] to give the public an opportunity to weigh in with comments” before attempting to postpone a rule that had already taken effect).

To which the Court added its own footnote:

To this litany of cases, the court adds two more from the last several months— Nat. Res. Def. Council v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and Children’s Hosp. of the King’s Daughters, Inc. v. AzarAs these cases make clear, this court is but the latest in a series to recently find that an agency’s delay of a properly promulgated final rule circumvented the APA.  (My emphasis.)

I find it hard to believe that numerous smart lawyers, across a range of agencies, all suddenly forgot what the APA requires.  Isn’t it more likely that the Administration simply doesn’t care about the outcome?  The government of the most powerful nation on earth, that likes to think that it taught the world about democracy, doesn’t care about governing.  All it cares about is having Twitter material, to feed to its adoring fans and, equally importantly, to bait its many critics.

WOTUS Lives! . . . at Least in Half the States (for Now)

Posted on September 11, 2018 by Rick Glick

On August 16, a federal judge in South Carolina invalidated the Trump Administration’s suspension of the rule defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), under the Clean Water Act.  In South Carolina Coastal Conservation League v. Pruitt, the court found that the notice-and-comment opportunity supporting the Suspension Rule was too narrow and thus violated the Administrative Procedure Act.  The WOTUS suspension is the latest in a series of attempts by the Administration to stall implementation of Obama era regulations, none of which have met favor with the courts. 

As reported here about one year ago, the Trump Administration announced a two-step process to undo WOTUS.  The first step was to suspend WOTUS for two years, during which a revised WOTUS rule would be developed.  In the meantime, guidance on jurisdictional waters that had been issued in the 1980s by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers would be reinstated.  The public notice of the Suspension Rule requested comments only on the suspension, but not the substance of either the Obama WOTUS rule or the 1980s guidance.

U. S. District Court Judge David C. Norton, a George H. W. Bush appointee, reasoned that the practical effect of the Suspension Rule is that the WOTUS rule would not apply and instead the 1980s guidance would control.  The court then noted that the definitions in the WOTUS rule and the 1987 guidance are “drastically different” and it is hard to comment on the Suspension Rule without talking about that difference.  That refusal to allow comment on the substantive differences violates the notice-and-comment provisions of the APA:  “An illusory opportunity to comment is no opportunity at all.”  The judge therefore rejected the Trump Suspension Rule, and imposed a nationwide injunction. 

Explaining the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act has flummoxed the federal agencies and courts for decades.  Far from bringing clarity, the Obama WOTUS Rule drew over one million comments and multiple judicial challenges on the merits of the rule.  Initially the question was whether such challenges should be made in the U. S. district courts or the Circuit Courts of Appeal.  The Sixth Circuit held that the appellate courts had original jurisdiction and stayed all of the pending district court actions, but that decision was reversed earlier this year in a unanimous decision of the U. S. Supreme Court.  Thus, those lower court cases can continue.

Judge Norton, in South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, was clear that he was not ruling on the merits of the WOTUS Rule, but just the procedural correctness of the Suspension Rule.  In challenges on the merits, other federal courts have stayed the WOTUS Rule in 24 states.  Striking down the Suspension Rule means that WOTUS remains in effect in the other 26 states. 

At the moment, then, about half the country is subject to the WOTUS Rule, while the other half is not.  What could go wrong?

WOTUS: Legal Issue or Scientific Issue?

Posted on August 1, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, EPA and the Army Corps issued a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in support of their efforts to get rid of the Obama WOTUS rule.  It’s a shrewd but cynical document.  It’s shrewd, because it fairly effectively shifts the focus from the scientific question to the legal question.  Instead of asking what waters must be regulated to ensure that waters of the United States are protected, it asks what are the jurisdictional limits in the Clean Water Act.

It’s cynical, because, by failing to take on the science behind the 2015 rule, which seemed fairly persuasive to me, EPA and the Corps avoid the hard regulations necessary to protect our waters while clothing themselves in feel-good words about the integrity of the statute and the important role given to states under the Clean Water Act.

Part of the beauty of the SNPR is the way it carefully navigates between whether the broader jurisdictional interpretation taken by the 2015 rule is prohibited under the Clean Water Act or simply not required under the Clean Water Act.

The agencies are also concerned that the 2015 Rule lacks sufficient statutory basis. The agencies are proposing to conclude in the alternative that, at a minimum, the interpretation of the statute adopted in the 2015 Rule is not compelled, and a different policy balance can be appropriate.

I’m not sure I agree with the administration’s interpretation of the scope of the CWA, but it’s not crazy.  If I had to bet, I’d assume that it would survive judicial review.

The problem is that this simplistic legal approach ignores the science and ignores the missions of both EPA and the Corps.  If the 2015 rule is more protective of the nation’s waters, and if there are questions about the scope of jurisdiction under the CWA, then shouldn’t the administration be asking Congress to clarify EPA’s and the Corps’ authority so that they can regulate in a manner consistent with what good science says is necessary to protect the waters of the United States?

I’m not holding my breath.

One Brief Shining Moment of WOTUS Clarity

Posted on January 24, 2018 by Rick Glick

In a rare moment of clarity in the benighted history of the Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, a unanimous Supreme Court declared that jurisdiction to review the WOTUS rule lies in the District Courts and not the Courts of Appeal.  The immediate effect of the January 22 ruling in National Assn. of Manufacturers v. Dept. of Defense  is to lift the nationwide stay of the rule imposed by the Sixth Circuit—which held that the appellate courts have original jurisdiction over the rule—thus reigniting a lot of dormant trial court challenges. 

The Clean Water Act applies to “navigable” waters, which is defined simply as “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers administer the CWA, and have tried without much success to refine this vague definition.  The latest attempt is the WOTUS rule, adopted by the Obama EPA in 2015.  The issue in National Assn. of Manufacturers is not whether that attempt hits the mark, but in which court should challenges be heard.

As noted in Bob Brubaker’s take on this case, the Court looked to the plain language of the statute, and to context when further explanation is needed.   The CWA extends original jurisdiction to the Circuits for EPA “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation.”  The government argued that the WOTUS rule falls within “any . . . other limitation.”  The Supreme Court rejected that argument, holding that such other limitations must be related to effluent limitations, and the WOTUS rule just establishes a definition that would apply generally to the scope of CWA.  The Court also rejected applicability of another CWA basis for Circuit Court jurisdiction advanced by the government, “issuing or denying any [NPDES] permit,” concluding simply that the WOTUS rule is not the same as permit issuance.

So what difference does it make if a trial judge or an appellate judge makes the initial decision on WOTUS?  WOTUS has drawn a multitude of challenges in both the District Courts and Courts of Appeals, including some in which plaintiffs filed in both courts to be on the safe side.  The case will end up at the Supreme Court anyway, right? 

True, but consider that the Sixth Circuit consolidated all the challenges in other Circuits and issued a decision that applied across the country.  The district court litigation has not been consolidated, and some cases have come to different conclusions, with many remaining to be litigated.  So, we can expect years of litigation in many different courts, followed by years of appeals heard by the Circuits, and finally to the Supreme Court . . . again.

But wait, Scott Pruitt’s EPA has initiated a rulemaking process to rescind and replace the WOTUS rule, so wouldn’t that moot the pending challenges to the rule?  It would not.  EPA has announced it is delaying the effective date of the 2015 rule for two more years to allow the Agency to develop its replacement.  But, in the meantime, the 2015 WOTUS rule remains in place.

The practical result is that the current round of cases in the District Courts will continue, followed -- if not accompanied -- by a new round of litigation challenging the proposed change of effective date, and the proposed rescission and replacement rules.  Safe to say there will be no certainty on the definition of WOTUS and the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction for many years to come.

Justice Sotomayor’s Two Greatest Commandments of Statutory Interpretation

Posted on January 23, 2018 by Robert Brubaker

I expect to see many brilliant ACOEL blog posts (from members that unlike me are Clean Water Act oracles) on the Supreme Court’s decision in National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense et al., No.16-299 (January 22, 2018).  That decision holds that the district courts rather the circuit courts have initial jurisdiction to review EPA’s action in promulgating the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.  I write to comment briefly on one aspect of the opinion: what it teaches us about statutory interpretation.

The field of environmental law is comprised of an exceptionally abundant amount of statutory law (in contrast to, say, antitrust law at the other extreme).  Environmental practitioners are continuously confronted with issues of statutory interpretation, often of incredible difficulty.  What jumps out at me from the unanimous WOTUS opinion, authored by Justice Sotomayor, is the clarity of articulation of the two greatest commandments of statutory interpretation.  The first commandment is that the statute’s plain language is of paramount importance to the correct interpretation, transcending all other considerations.  The second commandment is that context and structure are the most important guides to the correct interpretation when the statutory text is insufficiently clear.  We are well-advised to not overlook or overcomplicate the two most basic rules of statutory construction.

Another thing jumps out at me from Justice Sotomayor’s opinion for a unanimous Court.  To my knowledge, it is the first federal appellate court decision since 1984 involving an EPA interpretation of its enabling legislation, in a notice and comment rulemaking, that does not cite Chevron v. NRDC.

Even the irrationality of a bifurcated judicial review scheme, and the compelling interests in quick and orderly resolution of rulemaking disputes, in judicial efficiency, in avoiding conflicting outcomes in district court cases brought as late as six years after the claim accrues – all ably argued by EPA – were not enough to overcome the two greatest commandments of statutory interpretation.

Channeling Scalia in a New WOTUS Rule

Posted on March 24, 2017 by Donald Shandy

By now, most of the readers of this blog have heard about or read President Trump’s Executive Order directing the EPA to re-evaluate the “Waters of the United States” Rule.  This announcement brought cheers from farmers, developers, and many industry groups who had opposed EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka “WOTUS rule”) and groans, moans, and other choice words from environmental NGOs, wetlands specialists, and supporters of the WOTUS rule.  There are many articles written about what this executive order means and other articles speculate at what a new rule from a Scott Pruitt led EPA may look like under a Scalia-based definition of “navigable waters” when all of this shakes outs.

Being an Oklahoman and having interaction with Scott Pruitt over the years when he was Attorney General, I decided to take a look back at Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States, to see I if could piece together a couple of key components I would expect to see in a new WOTUS rule.  I note at the outset that the executive order does not require the EPA to use Justice Scalia’s definition of “navigable waters”; only that EPA “shall consider interpreting the term ‘navigable waters’ . . . in a manger consistent with” Justice Scalia’s definition in Rapanos.  However, having observed Administrator Pruitt making arguments on behalf of the State of Oklahoma as Attorney General, I would be surprised if he does not channel Justice Scalia into the new rule.

There are two points in Justice Scalia’s opinion in Rapanos that stand out.  First, he rejected the Army Corps of Engineers’ interpretation of “waters of the United States” under a Chevron step two analysis, stating that the “Corps’ expansive interpretation of that phrase is not ‘based on a permissible construction of the statute.’”  The CWA uses the phrase “navigable waters” and traditionally, that phrase applies to “relatively permanent bodies of water.”  Further, Justice Scalia pointed to language in the CWA that categorized channels and conduits that typically carry intermittent flows separately from “navigable waters.”

Second, Justice Scalia concluded that Congress’ use of “waters of the United States” did not “authorize [an] intrusion into such an area of traditional state authority as land-use regulation.”  Justice Scalia criticized Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test because it failed to account for the “primary state responsibility for ordinary land-use decisions.”  In Justice Scalia’s opinion, by taking a narrow view that the only purpose of the CWA was to “clean up the waters of the United States,” and that anything affecting the chemical, physical or biological integrity of those waters should therefore be jurisdictional, Justice Kennedy employed “the familiar tactic of substituting the purpose of the statue for its text [and] freeing the Court to write a different statute that achieves the same purpose.”  Thus, Justice Scalia thought any interpretation of “waters of the United States” must account for the traditional role of the states in determining land use.

In looking at these two components of Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion and reflecting on Administrator Pruitt’s viewpoint when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, it appears that Justice Scalia and Administrator Pruitt may be aligned when it comes to how the CWA should overlay with states’ role of land-use decisions.  I think we can expect Administrator Pruitt to champion and strengthen the notion of cooperative federalism and increasing the role of the states in crafting the new water rule.  If Pruitt’s EPA takes heed of Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos, I think we will see more involvement by the states in crafting the language of the rule and a narrower definition that could lead to more certainty in jurisdictional determinations.

POTUS, SCOTUS & WOTUS: What Do They Have in Common With Michael Stipe and Jack Black?

Posted on March 15, 2017 by Jeff Thaler

Then-candidate Donald Trump’s unauthorized use of REM’s 1987 song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, during a 2015 campaign rally sparked a sharp objection by the band’s Michael Stipe. Flash forward to 2017 and now-President Trump has been flexing his executive powers in a number of legal fields; for many environmental, energy or immigration lawyers it’s the end of the regulatory world as we knew it for decades, and they are not feeling so fine.

Executive Orders (EOs) raise classic constitutional law issues of the separation of powers, in that they often are used for “executive legislating” even though there is no explicit constitutional authority for them. EOs also blur traditional regulating lines, because they are not issued with public notice or comment, and usually state that they do not “create any right or benefit enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States.”

An EO can have the force of law, however, if the EO is based on either the Constitution or a statute, per the Supreme Court’s 1954 Youngstown decision. That is why one must carefully read each EO to determine the grounds of its authority, and then whether it is possibly contrary to a) existing laws or b) constitutional provisions such as due process or equal protection.

Facing an uncooperative Congress, POTUS Obama came to rely on EOs in his last two years in office (see this prophetic 2015 School House Rock episode). POTUS Trump took to EOs right out of the gate. The two Trump EOs that have garnered the most publicity and outcry deal with immigration restrictions The first EO was challenged in numerous courts, and the 9th Circuit issued on February 9 the first appellate decision on a Trump EO. Interestingly, and instructive for future litigants and legal counsel, the first issue addressed by the 9th Circuit, and the one they discussed the most, was . . . standing. The court then moved on to reviewability, and only briefly due process and equal protection. The complaint’s count on violating the Administrative Procedure Act for not following proper rulemaking proceedings was not even discussed in the ruling.

Trump issued two EOs of more relevance to environmental and energy lawyers. First was the January 30, 2017 EO entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs”, aka the add-one-subtract-two, no-increase-in-incremental-costs [undefined]- of-regulations EO. That was followed by the February 2, 2017 Interim Guidance of the OMB implementing (and implicitly amending) the EO by limiting it to “significant regulatory actions”—i.e. those of $100 million or more of annual effect on the economy. A week later the EO and IG were both challenged in federal court in D.C. as violating the APA, separation of powers, the Constitution’s “Take Care Clause”, and as being ultra vires. Plaintiffs referenced in part OSHA, TSCA, the ESA and CAA, and other energy/environmental laws as being inconsistent with the EO’s requirement that a new rule can only be promulgated if its cost is offset by the elimination of two existing rules. The EO ironically signals the possible demise of cost-benefit analysis —first mandated by then POTUS Ronald Reagan by an EO in 1981—by disallowing consideration of the economic benefits of a regulation when weighing its costs.

Many more EOs are promised in the coming weeks concerning a variety of environmental and energy laws and regulations. Early in the wave was the February 28, 2017 EO with the majestic name of “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ [aka WOTUS] Rule”. This EO directs the EPA to review the WOTUS Rule while keeping in mind the national interest of “promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles of the Congress and the States under the Constitution.” Since WOTUS was a final rule published in the Federal Register, it can only be repealed and replaced by a new rule that goes through full notice-and-comment rulemaking, not simply by a non-legislative guidance or policy statement.

One who lives by the EO sword can slowly die from it too. POTUS Obama did not submit for approval to Congress the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2016, calling it an “executive agreement”, thus POTUS Trump does not need Congressional approval to undo it. The Agreement terms do not allow withdrawal by a party before November 2019. However, the U.S. could withdraw from the overarching United Nations Framework on Climate Change with one year notice, if the Senate approves, and that in effect would undo our Paris “commitments”. And as a practical matter, the current Administration could also just choose not to implement the Paris obligations, because there is no binding duty to hit the emission reduction targets.

In sum, we live in interesting times.   Although Jack Black has said of this Administration that “It’s the end of the world”, for College members and their clients it’s the start of some fascinating new adventures in regulation and litigation. Stay tuned. 

WOTUS, We Hardly Knew Ye

Posted on March 2, 2017 by Rick Glick

With a flourish of his pen, on February 28, President Trump signed an Executive Order  aimed at dismantling the ill-fated Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.  The rule was the latest attempt by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to bring some clarity to the limits of federal authority under the Clean Water Act.  Clarity in this area has been elusive, and though many were unhappy with the rule, no one benefits from the current state of confusion.

The uncertainty begins with the Clean Water Act, which Congress said applies to “navigable” waters and then helpfully defined navigable to mean “waters of the United States.”  The agencies and the courts have struggled ever since to figure out when wetlands are jurisdictional.  The courts have not helped.  In Rapanos v. U.S., a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court found the Government had overreached, but could not agree as to why.  Justice Scalia, writing for a plurality of the Court, would limit jurisdiction to “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water,” excluding intermittent or ephemeral channels and most drainage ditches.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy invoked a “significant nexus” test whereby jurisdiction should apply if a hydrologic connection between a wetland and a navigable water could be demonstrated.  Later courts have tried to follow both tests, with mixed results.

Justice Scalia’s test is a lot easier to apply:  If you can see the water or the land goes squish under your feet, there is jurisdiction.  Justice Kennedy’s test requires a case-by-case review and exercise of professional judgment.  The WOTUS rule focused more on the Kennedy test to indicate how the Government would make its jurisdictional determinations.

Without getting into detail that now is mostly moot, the rule generated about one million public comments and lots of litigation—17 District Court complaints and 23 petitions to various Circuit Courts of Appeal.  It seemed certain that the Supreme Court would get another opportunity to declare the law of WOTUS.

No doubt the Court will get that chance, but in a drastically different context.  The president’s Executive Order has no legal effect, other than to get the process started.  The Obama Administration’s WOTUS rule was subject to years of notice and comment before adoption, and the Trump Administration’s revisions will have to go through the same process.  No doubt they will be as controversial and will also be fiercely litigated.  That will take a very long time to play out, and won’t likely be completed during a Trump first term. 

In the meantime, property owners still would like to develop their property, and the Government still has to apply the law.  The Trump Executive Order gives direction that a new WOTUS rule should follow the Scalia test, but that doesn’t reflect the way jurisdictional determinations are made today.  Suffice to say that the Kennedy significant nexus test will still be in play for the near to intermediate term, and a prudent developer will include a wetlands determination as a key part of the due diligence for the project.

Whither WOTUS?

Posted on July 18, 2016 by Rick Glick

In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers released a rule to define “waters of the United States,” affectionately referred to as WOTUS.  This definition goes to the scope of federal jurisdiction over wetlands and other waters that are not obviously free flowing and navigable.  An in-depth analysis of the rule can be found here

The rule hasn’t exactly played to rave reviews.  It attracted over one million comments.  Many complained the rule represents gross government overreach.  Others criticize the rule for not being protective enough.  The rule is also the subject of multiple challenges around the country, some filed before the rule was officially released.  The lead case is now pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  The Court of Appeals accepted original jurisdiction over a challenge to the rule based, in part, on the failure of the rule’s “distance limitations” to comport with good science, and on the inconsistency of the final rule with the proposed rule.  The Court of Appeals thought enough of petitioners’ arguments that it stayed implementation of the new rule.

On this first anniversary of the rule, we thought a brief summary of the controversies surrounding the rule and current status might be helpful.  The attached article, newly published in The Water Report, attempts to do just that.  Many thanks to Diego Atencio, a third year law student at the University of Oregon and a summer associate at DWT, for his assistance in writing the article.

Following the Yellow Brick Road…

Posted on June 2, 2016 by LeAnne Burnett

The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) fairly boasts that it lived up to its tag line “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast” by following its 2012 Supreme Court victory in Sackett v. EPA with its May 31, 2016 victory in United States Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc.  In both Clean Water Act cases the PLF represented the property owners on appeal, arguing that the particular agency action was final, subject to judicial review.  The Supreme Court agreed both times.  Some boasting is due. 

The particulars of each case flow from disputes about the scope of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act.  Neither case resolved the merits issue.  Both cases considered only whether the dispute may be brought to court by challenging a pre-enforcement agency action. 

The Sacketts filled in a half acre of their 2/3-acre residential lot near Priest Lake, Idaho with dirt and rock in preparation for building a home.  EPA served a compliance order advising the Sacketts that they violated the Clean Water Act by filling in waters of the United States without a Section 404 dredge and fill permit.  The Order unilaterally prevented further construction and required the Sacketts to remove the fill material then restore the wetland pursuant to an EPA Restoration Work Plan. 

The Sacketts tried to challenge EPA’s order, but were told by EPA, then by the District Court, that they had no right to challenge the order until EPA attempted to enforce it.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, setting the Sacketts squarely on the horns of their dilemma.  Disregarding the unilateral compliance order subjected the Sacketts to potential fines of up to $75,000 per day.   Complying with the order meant spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry out the EPA’s Restoration Work Plan, and never getting to build on their property. 

The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert, and Justice Scalia, authoring the decision concluded that the compliance order met the Bennett two-prong test for reviewability:  (1) no adequate remedy other than review under the Administrative Procedures Act, and (2) no statute, in this case the Clean Water Act, precluded that review.  Justice Alito, concurring, declared:  “The position taken in this case by the Federal Government -- a position that the Court now squarely rejects -- would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees.” And later:  “In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.”    

The Hawkes case, four years later, is the same song, second verse.  This time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued the offending decision -- a jurisdictional determination (JD) that waters of the United States existed on 530 acres from which Hawkes Co., Inc. (Hawkes) and its affiliated companies planned to mine for peat.  Hawkes provides peat for golf courses and sports fields, and mining peat on the 530 acres would extend the life of its peat mining business by ten to fifteen years.  The USACE concluded that the property was connected by a “relatively permanent water” (a series of culverts and unnamed streams) that flowed into the Middle River and then into the Red River of the North, a “traditional navigable waterway” about 120 miles away.  With the USACE determination, Hawkes needed a permit to harvest peat.  Moreover, USACE advised that before it issued a permit, it would require additional hydrological and functional resource assessments and an evaluation of upstream potential impacts, the cost of which would exceed $100,000.

Using an analysis, discussed in my colleague’s post Sending a Message on WOTUS, the Court concluded that a JD satisfied both prongs of Bennett, and affirmed the Eighth Circuit, remanding the Hawkes companies to District Court of Minnesota - Minneapolis with the right to litigate the jurisdictional determination, same as the Sacketts.  When the Supreme Court ruled favorably on their case the Sacketts were remanded to the Idaho District Court, where their court battle continues.  Presumably, the battle will continue with the Hawkes’ companies as well. 

At the heart of each battle is whether or not the property actually contains “Waters of the United States.”  Following the procedural “yellow brick road” won’t get anyone out of Oz -- not until a clear definition of waters of the United States emerges.

Sending a Message on WOTUS?

Posted on June 2, 2016 by Patrick A. Parenteau

The May 31 decision in Hawkes may be less important for what it says about the reviewability of jurisdictional determinations (JDs) under the Clean Water Act than for what is says about the far more consequential stakes in the pending challenges to EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka WOTUS), which will undoubtedly find its way to the Court following a decision by the Sixth Circuit which is expected before the end of the year.

Contrary to my prediction the Court did rule (unanimously) that JDs are final agency actions subject to review under the APA. In an opinion penned by Chief Justice Roberts the Court upheld the conclusion of the Eighth Circuit but substituted a different test for finality, one that emerged during oral argument and one that introduces a novel and perhaps questionable rationale. The key question was whether JDs have legal consequences. In roundabout fashion, Roberts concluded they did because a positive finding of jurisdiction meant that the applicant was denied the advantage of a negative determination (or NJD). That had the effect of denying the applicant the benefit of what Roberts called a “safe harbor” provision contained, not in the statute or implementing regulations, but in a 2015 Memorandum of Agreement between by EPA and the Corps. Roberts read the MOA as creating a legal right – similar to a covenant not to sue – binding the government to a five year commitment not to revisit the NJD, an interpretation the government vigorously disputed as pointed out by Justice Ginsburg in her concurrence.

This ruling could have significant practical effects. Since 2008 the Corps and EPA have issued over 400,000 JDs of which approximately 40% were approved JD’s. Under the MOA, the process has become more formal, giving it at least the appearance if not the reality of adjudication. The formality of the process convinced a number of the Justices, particularly Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan, that JDs should be considered final actions under the Abbott Labs test. They emphasized the fact that under the MOA the agencies were not simply giving advice to the public. This raises the question whether the agencies may want to rethink the MOA and consider revising the safe harbor provision to make clear it is not binding. The Solicitor raised this possibility during the oral argument (transcript at p 16 lines 16-25).

Pursuing that route, however, runs the risk of further alienating Justice Kennedy and the government can ill afford to lose his potentially crucial vote if and when the Clean Water Rule reaches the Court. In his concurring opinion, joined not surprisingly by Justices Alito and Thomas, Kennedy went out of his way to take several pot shots at the Clean Water Act and the agencies implementation of it. Referring to “the Act’s ominous reach” Kennedy said it “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the Government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the Nation.”  During oral argument Kennedy offered the view that the CWA is “arguably unconstitutionally vague, and certainly harsh in the civil and criminal penalties it puts into practice.”

It is too soon to write the obituary for the Clean Water Rule. But Kennedy’s vote is more in doubt now than when he authored the concurring opinion in Rapanos showing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of both the values enshrined in the CWA and the constitutional issues it raises. Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test, widely accepted as controlling by the lower courts, was the blueprint EPA and the Corps used to write the rule. Given these more recent statements, that may not be enough to win his approval. The fate of the rule may well depend on how soon and by whom the vacancy on the Court is filled.

Curiouser and Curiouser: Sixth Circuit Not Sure of Jurisdiction but Stays WOTUS Rule Anyway

Posted on October 9, 2015 by Rick Glick

Does this make sense to you?  Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule.  And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway!  That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.  

This case is among many seeking to block the rule.  The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.”  But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation. 

The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly.  The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.

The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination.  The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making.  Pants first, then shoes.

Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action?  No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule.  The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation. 

Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal?  Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing.  Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record.  Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.

Whole Lot of Craziness Going On

Posted on September 2, 2015 by Dick Stoll

A whole lot of craziness is going on in federal district and appellate courts all over the country right now.  About what?  About judicial review of EPA’s recent “WOTUS” rule under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  So I can avoid wheel re-invention, see the very recent ACOEL blogs by Seth Jaffe and Rick Glick.

So what’s the problem?  You might find a lot to hate about the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and I could name a few others, but at least they all have one good thing going for them:  they all provide in a crystal clear manner that judicial review of EPA’s national rules under those statutes will lie exclusively with the D.C. Circuit.  No ifs, ands, buts, or maybes.

For reasons I have never understood (and I have been trying since the 1970s), Congress in its infinite wisdom chose a different path in the CWA.  In Section 509, they listed seven types of actions that must be reviewed in a federal Court of Appeal (not necessarily the D.C. Circuit) and left any other type of action to be reviewed initially in federal district court.

Over the years, a lot of mixed case law has developed regarding EPA’s CWA rules that don’t fit neatly within one of the seven types of actions Section 509 has specified for Court of Appeals review.  Quite predictably, as reflected in Seth’s and Rick’s recent blogs, three district courts last week reached conflicting results over whether WOTUS fits within the seven types.  In its WOTUS preamble, EPA included a discussion about confusion in the courts over the issue and took no position on whether WOTUS should initially be reviewed in a district court or Court of Appeals.

So how crazy is this:  right now, we have (1) a ruling from one district court judge in North Dakota finding he has jurisdiction and enjoining EPA from enforcing WOTUS; (2) a statement from EPA saying the agency will honor his injunction only in the 13 States that were plaintiffs in that action; (3) an order from that judge directing the parties to brief the issue of whether EPA has authority to honor his ruling in only those states; (4) decisions from two other federal district judges holding WOTUS judicial review must be brought only in a Court of Appeals; (5) numerous cases filed in several circuit Courts of Appeals that have been transferred (at least for now) to the 6th Circuit; (6) an almost certain EPA appeal to the 8th Circuit in attempt to reverse the North Dakota judge’s injunction; and (7) WOTUS review cases filed in numerous other federal district courts by lots of parties with various motions still pending.

This is early September, and I can’t imagine how this won’t get a lot crazier over the next few months.  Congress in its infinite wisdom!

First Blood: North Dakota Federal Court Strikes WOTUS Rule

Posted on August 31, 2015 by Rick Glick

With so many challenges filed in so many venues to EPA’s Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, it seemed inevitable that some plaintiffs somewhere would find a sympathetic court.  And so it is that thirteen states found U. S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson to preliminarily enjoin the “exceptionally expansive view” of the government’s reach under the Clean Water Act.

This case is interesting from a couple of perspectives.  First, Congress conferred original jurisdiction for challenges to EPA “effluent limitations or other limitations” and for permit decisions upon the Circuit Courts of Appeal.  In the past two days, district court judges in West Virginia and Georgia concluded they lacked jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS rule on that basis.  Judge Erickson, however, did not feel so constrained. 

The judge found that the WOTUS rule is simply definitional, and neither an effluent limitation nor an “other limitation” on states’ discretion.  Further, the judge found that the rule “has at best an attenuated connection to any permitting process.”   The conclusion states’ discretion is not affected is a bit odd in that the judge later concludes that the state plaintiffs satisfied all the criteria for a preliminary injunction, including irreparable harm caused by the rule. 

Second, Judge Erickson plays on an internecine dispute between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in an unusual way.   In my first sentence I refer to the WOTUS rule as EPA’s, although the rule was jointly adopted by EPA and the Corps.  However, recently leaked internal government memoranda indicate that the Corps disavows much of the technical support and policy choices underlying the rule.  Judge Erickson obliquely references these memoranda and seems to rely on them to conclude that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their challenge. 

Typically, courts are loathe to rely on internal documents of uncertain provenance, as they prefer to leave the government room to openly discuss policies under development without fear its deliberations would be disclosed.  But in this case, Judge Erickson notes that he has not been presented with the full record for the WOTUS rulemaking, and so felt justified in citing the Corps memos. 

As Seth Jaffe has observed, it seems likely that Judge Erickson’s jurisdictional determination will not stand, and his reliance on the confidential exchanges between the Corps and EPA is a little disturbing.  However, his order highlights EPA’s poor management of this rulemaking, which has led to challenges from states, property rights advocates and environmentalists—a kind of anti-EPA trifecta. 

As previously noted, EPA released its draft WOTUS rule before the work of the Science Advisory Board was complete, thus raising questions as to the rule’s scientific objectivity.  Then EPA seemingly disregarded the technical concerns raised by its rulemaking partner, the Corps.  Any WOTUS rulemaking would be controversial, but EPA has unnecessarily raised the bar for public acceptance.

Two Days, Three Decisions, One Big Mess: Welcome to Judicial Review of the Waters of the United States Rule

Posted on August 28, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, Judge Irene Keeley of the Northern District of West Virginia held that district courts do not have jurisdiction to hear challenges to EPA’s rule defining waters of the United States, because courts of appeal have original jurisdiction over “any effluent limitation or other limitation.”  Yesterday, Judge Lisa Wood of the Southern District of Georgia agreed.

Later yesterday, Judge Ralph Erickson of the District of North Dakota disagreed.  Finding that a definitional rule is not an effluent limitation and is not any “other limitation”, because it “places no new burden or requirements on the States”, Judge Erickson concluded that the district courts do have jurisdiction.  Addressing the merits, Judge Erickson concluded the states were likely to prevail, and would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction.  He thus enjoined enforcement of the rule in the 13 states involved in the case before him.

I’ll go out on a limb and assert that Judge Erickson’s decision is not likely to survive.  Why not?

  • Both the Georgia and West Virginia opinions cogently explain why the WOTUS rule is an “other limitation under existing CWA cases.
  • Judge Erickson was clearly trying to have his cake and eat it, too. It is, to put it mildly, internally inconsistent for Judge Erickson to conclude that he had jurisdiction to hear the case, because the “rule places no new burden or requirements on the States”, while ruling on the merits that the States will suffer irreparable harm if the rule goes into effect.  If they will suffer harm, it is precisely because the rule will limit them in new ways – which is pretty much what his own opinion says. 
  • As Judge Keeley noted, providing consolidated jurisdiction over all challenges to the rule in one court of appeals furthers

“the congressional goal of ensuring prompt resolution of challenges to EPA’s actions.”  That scheme would be undermined by … a “patchwork quilt” of district court rulings.

Based on these three decisions in just the last two days, it would seem that truer words were never spoken.