Duarte Nursery v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
John Duarte is a fourth-generation California farmer growing grapevines and almond, walnut and pistachio root stock. The family also cultivates vineyards and orchards. Duarte hired a contractor to plow 450 acres in Tehama County, about two hours north of Sacramento, to plant winter wheat and a walnut orchard. The land contains isolated vernal pools, also known as rainpuddles. The Corps of Engineers, which considers vernal pools to be wetlands, ordered Duarte Nursery to stop farming its land, without giving the company a hearing. This violates the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against the government depriving any person of their property without due process of law. PLF sued on this due process claim. When Duarte sued, the government doubled down and counter-sued, demanding millions of dollars to restore wetlands in perpetuity – even though there is no evidence that he damaged a single wetland on his property. The government’s retaliation against Duarte violates his First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
The government’s case on the merits turns on the definition of waters that can legitimately be regulated under the statute and the answer to that question depends on interpretation of Rapanos v. U.S., a 4-1-4 split decision of the Supreme Court that offers varying ways to approach the definitional issue. The lead decision in that case allows federal regulation of non-navigable wetlands only if they directly abut navigable waters such that one can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The Corps of Engineers, however, issued a regulation that expands its jurisdiction over isolated wetlands. PLF argues that this regulation is invalid and the Corps has no authority over this property.
The federal district court rejected Duarte’s First Amendment claim on the ground that the government is immune from suit, ruled that he violated the Clean Water Act by plowing his field, and set the case for trial to determine the penalty.