Waters of the United Chaos

Posted on November 3, 2015 by Richard Horder

                The Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision is bizarrely phrased and at times impenetrable.  It can force litigants into lengthy threshold battles over jurisdiction that delay and sideline the actual challenges to EPA’s action.  Nowhere is this better showcased than in the recent litigation over EPA’s new definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”).  Companies, industry groups and public interest organizations have filed dozens of suits in district and circuit courts across the country to cover all the possible jurisdictional possibilities.  The circuit court cases were filed under the Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision that automatically centralizes the cases in a randomly selected circuit court (here, the Sixth Circuit).  The district court cases were filed under the Administrative Procedure Act, which contains no mechanism for consolidating the numerous cases.

                In a heroic attempt to combine the district court cases and litigate in only one court, EPA looked to the multidistrict litigation process designed for coordinated discovery among cases sharing common facts.  The circus that ensued was a mini-caricature of the WOTUS litigation and highlighted the intrinsic problems with the Clean Water Act’s judicial review process.  The hearing before the multidistrict litigation panel began at 8:00 a.m. in a large courtroom filled beyond capacity with hundreds of lawyers representing the litigants in the fifteen matters scheduled for oral argument that day.  Clerks of the court spread across the room calling each matter, and lawyers fought through the crowd to form a bunch in front of their clerk, struggling to hear over the noise.  The clerks doled out oral argument time in minute increments, giving some lawyers as few as two minutes of argument time.  Once the schedule was set and after a brief recess, the panel called each of the thirteen cases preceding the WOTUS matter on the docket – the Amtrak derailment, airline anti-trust, various medical device and product liability matters, etc. – moving from one matter to the next with seamless agility.

                DOJ (Martha Mann) presented oral argument for EPA, and met with stiff resistance from the panel.  The panel challenged EPA’s attempt to fit an APA case, to be decided on the record and the law with minimal discovery, into the MDL process designed mostly for coordinated discovery.  Ultimately the panel commended Ms. Mann for a noble effort in an exceptionally uphill battle.  Elbert Lin, the Solicitor General of West Virginia, presented argument for the plaintiffs and, sensing the favorable persuasion of the panel, highlighted only the diverse procedural postures of the various matters.  The various jurisdictional and preliminary injunction rulings in the district courts and an appeal already before the 11th Circuit would all greatly complicate any attempted consolidation.

                On October 13th, the panel issued its ruling, deciding not to consolidate the district court cases.  The panel agreed that not only was the MDL process not applicable to the predominantly legal WOTUS challenges, but consolidation would only further complicate the already chaotic litigation.

                Jurisdictional questions are now pending before the 6th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals.  The 6th Circuit offers EPA its last hope of litigating the WOTUS challenges in one court.  If the 11th Circuit were to disagree, the jurisdictional issues could continue to eclipse the merits of the litigation for months, if not years, pending final resolution by the Supreme Court.



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