Chantell and Mike Sackett have spent the past 15 years locked in a legal dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over their right to build a home on land they own near Priest Lake, Idaho. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear their case—the second time the Sacketts have gone before the highest court in this long-running case.
The Sacketts bought their land in 2004, a $23,000 lot in a subdivision where they planned to build a modest three-bedroom family home. They obtained the necessary local permits, and in 2007, they began construction, only to have EPA officials swiftly and suddenly demand they stop. The agency alleged the property was a protected wetland under federal jurisdiction and threatened the Sacketts with fines of tens of thousands of dollars per day if they continued to develop the property.
The EPA’s compliance order claimed the Sacketts’ construction violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) because their property was a federally regulated “navigable water” over which the agency had legal authority. While the Sacketts disputed this claim, the EPA provided them with no proof of any violation and no opportunity to contest its claims.
Represented by PLF, the Sacketts sued the EPA to confirm that the agency has no authority over their property. Lower courts refused to hear their case, so the Sacketts fought all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 2012, they secured a unanimous decision confirming they indeed did have the right to challenge the EPA’s order in a court of law.
Since then, however, the Sacketts’ dispute has languished in lower courts without resolution. The only progress in the decade since has been the EPA’s removal of the compliance order in 2020.
With the question of federal jurisdiction—and their homebuilding dreams—still in limbo, the Sacketts are returning to the Supreme Court. This time, they’re asking the court to clarify the scope of the EPA’s regulatory powers under the CWA. At stake is whether the EPA can expand the definition of “navigable waters”—which limits their authority—to include any semi-soggy parcel of land in the country.
The Court hopefully will revisit its 2006 decision in Rapanos v. United States. While that case was an important milestone in establishing limits on the EPA’s regulatory power, the agency has since issued guidance documents and created new rules in an attempt to sidestep the Court’s repeated efforts to rein in their unauthorized expansion of the Clean Water Act.
A win would vindicate the Sacketts’ right to finally build their home and the rights of all landowners to make reasonable use of their property without abuse by overzealous federal regulators.
As for the EPA, the Sacketts’ victory would simply restore proper limits to its power over regulated waters. Oral argument took place October 3, 2022, the first case of the Court’s 2022-23 term.