The Need for a Judicial Check on Regulatory Compliance Orders

Font Size:

The Supreme Court should hold in favor of judicial review in Sackett v. EPA.

Font Size:

Earlier this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sackett v. EPA. Commentators in the media have characterized this case, depending upon their orientation, either as one involving an overbearing government agency threatening a family for trying to build a house on slightly more than a half-acre of its property, or as a threat to the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take necessary action to protect the environment. Unfortunately, for those of us who prefer truth to propaganda, neither of these descriptions accurately states what is before the Court.

The Sacketts want to build a house on their 0.6 acre property, and in preparation for that construction they filled an area that EPA believes is a wetland. While they might have qualified for a permit for this activity, they did not seek one, and when informed by EPA that it appeared they were violating the Clean Water Act, they did not desist from their activity. EPA consequently issued a “compliance order,” as authorized by the Clean Water Act, ordering the Sacketts to cease and desist from their filling activities and to remove the fill material and restore the area to its original condition. The order included the warning that violation of the order might subject the Sacketts to substantial civil or administrative penalties. The Sacketts then brought suit in federal court alleging, among other things, that the compliance order was arbitrary and capricious.

Whether the Sacketts or EPA officials are correct is not the issue before the Court. The issue is simply whether the Sacketts may seek a judicial determination of the correctness of EPA’s order without having to violate that order and risk large civil or administrative penalties in order to obtain a judicial determination of the legality of EPA’s order as a defense to that enforcement action. EPA, understandably, would like to avoid judicial review until it brings an enforcement action in court. The threat of huge penalties if EPA is correct often is enough to force compliance even if a defendant strongly believes that EPA is wrong. Recall Clint Eastwood’s challenge as Dirty Harry to various perpetrators: “make my day,” he would say, leaving them to guess whether he had another bullet in his pistol.

Many environmentalists fear that a decision by the Court in favor of the Sacketts would hamstring environmental enforcement, on the theory that if defendants may delay compliance during lengthy judicial review proceedings, substantial harm to the environment may occur even if EPA eventually prevails. Moreover, if obtaining judicial review would delay compliance, then defendants might be induced to seek judicial review simply to put off the cost of compliance, even if the defendants knew they were likely to lose in the end. However, this fear is unfounded. The Administrative Procedure Act is clear that obtaining judicial review of a compliance order does not by itself relieve a person from the requirement to comply with that order pending judicial review. Instead, that Act provides that a person may seek a stay of the order first from the agency and then from the court if the agency denies the request, but that request will be judged on its own merits. For example, with respect to the Sacketts, it is unlikely a court would stay EPA’s order to cease and desist from further damage to the alleged wetlands, but it might well stay the requirement that the Sacketts restore the wetlands until a determination of the validity of EPA’s order. Thus, the judicial review the Sacketts seek would not enable continued harm to the environment during the review proceedings.

One need not view EPA as a rogue agency – or even as Dirty Harry – to appreciate the need for providing a judicial check on agency action. Even in good faith EPA has made errors in the past, and it and will again in the future; after all, it is staffed by humans. Knowing that persons may be able to seek judicial review, rather than be coerced into compliance out of fear of large penalties, provides a healthy incentive for EPA officials to ensure that their decisions are based on sound facts and law that will be readily upheld in courts. Absent that incentive, the tendency noted by Lord Acton – that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely – could lead an agency to rely more on coercion than law. It is an essential element of the rule of law that government action be subject to judicial review, and here EPA’s order likewise should be subject to review.

William Funk

William Funk is the Robert E. Jones Professor Advocacy and Ethics at the Lewis & Clark Law School and the author of American Constitutional Structure.