HEY CONGRESS: PLEASE FIX THIS “JUST PLAIN NUTS” SITUATION

Posted on June 10, 2019 by Dick Stoll

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 (May, 2019) conflicting federal district court decisions, leaving the Obama WOTUS rule in place in one area and remanding it in another.

I similarly complained of a “whole lot of craziness going on” regarding WOTUS judicial review in my 2015 ACOEL post.  I related how inconsistent decisions coming out of various courts were leaving the rule in force in some states, yet throwing it out in other states.  Since then, we have seen even crazier situations with some counties left subject to the rule while other counties in the same State are not!

Here is a recent sad summary from the May 29, 2019 Inside EPA: “Due to a variety of district court decisions, the 2015 rule continues to apply in 23 states and 23 of New Mexico’s 33 counties, but it is blocked in 26 states and in the other 10 New Mexico Counties.”  And to make the patchwork even crazier, the 23 states where the rule remains in place are anything but contiguous – looking at a U.S. map, it appears someone threw darts.

As Rick Glick recently reminded us, we will soon have a brand new WOTUS from the Trump EPA folks.  This will inevitably trigger a slew of new judicial review actions in numerous federal district courts, with another crazy-quilt patch of inconsistent results sure to follow.

Seth appears to blame this situation on the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that initial judicial review of the WOTUS rule must lie in the federal district courts – not, as the federal government had urged, in a U.S. Court of Appeals.  Seth notes that “the Supreme Court had the luxury of ignoring the chaos that would ensue” from its decision.

I blame this situation squarely on Congress, however.  Given the way the Clean Water Act is drafted, I just don’t see how the Supreme Court could have ruled otherwise.  And it is telling that the Court’s opinion was unanimous.  That’s right, a unanimous opinion from this Supreme Court! 

The heart of the problem is straightforward.  Under the federal APA, direct judicial review of final agency rules lies in federal district courts except where Congress has provided that certain types of rules are to be reviewed directly in a Court of Appeals.  As I outlined in my 2015 “craziness” post, Congress has provided that all sorts of national rules under the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and many other statutes, shall be directly reviewed by a Court of Appeals.

But in 1972 Congress took a different approach in the Clean Water Act, and specified that only seven types of final EPA actions would be directly reviewed in a Court of Appeals.  As the Supreme Court unanimously ruled last year, the WOTUS rule does not fit within any of these seven types of actions.  As a matter of pure (and unfortunate) logic, this means the district courts have initial jurisdiction over the WOTUS rule.

The federal government argued before the Supreme Court that the policy arguments in favor of direct Court of Appeals review are overwhelming.  The crazy-quilt patchwork that would take years (probably decades) to resolve would be avoided, as federal rules would require challenges filed in various Court of Appeals circuits to be consolidated in one Court. 

I wholly agree with these policy arguments, and I believe it is up to Congress to fix this mess. Just a few words added to the CWA would do it.  For example, Congress could simply provide that final rules defining the extent of “waters of the United States” would be the eighth type of action subject to direct Court of Appeals review.  Or many other formulations with just a few words could do the trick.

I know we live in polarized political times, and it is hard to secure Congressional consensus on major issues like reproductive rights, immigration, etc.   But should it be polarizing to provide direct Court of Appeals review of a critical EPA rule to avoid “just plain nuts” and “whole lot of craziness” inconsistencies throughout the nation?  If it is, I think that is just plain nuts.