Waters of the United States

Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court victory for PLF and property rights

Cases > Property Rights > Waters of the United States
Case Status: Won: The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cannot shelter its “waters of the United States” rule from judicial review by arbitrarily limiting where victims can sue.

In 2015 PLF challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to stretch federal control to nearly every pond, ditch, and puddle in the nation as nothing more than an outrageous—and illegal—power grab under cover of the Clean Water Act. And under the Act, people who are harmed by such rules have six years to sue in federal district court. That is, until the EPA rewrote the rule, trying to prevent legal action by giving property owners just 120 days to sue, and then only in federal appellate courts. On January 22, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the EPA’s power play and unanimously ruled for PLF and property rights. The High Court agreed with PLF that the EPA cannot shelter its “waters of the United States” rule from judicial review by arbitrarily limiting where victims can sue.

The EPA adopted an extreme rule redefining “waters of the United States” subject to federal control under the Clean Water Act. The new rule covers virtually all waters in the U.S. and much of the land, extending to every tributary of a “navigable water,” isolated pools and potholes, the 100-year flood plain covering millions of stream miles, and, on a case-by-case basis, any water within 4,000 feet of a tributary. The exemptions are so narrow as to be laughable, if the agencies even honor them. Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps and EPA can limit or prohibit the use of any water or property subject to their jurisdiction and back up their enforcement with ruinous fines ($37,500 a day for alleged violations) and even criminal prosecution.

PLF represents ranchers, farmers and private parties from several states arguing that the new rule violates the Clean Water Act itself, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and exceeds federal power under the Constitution. PLF sued the Army Corps and the EPA in Minnesota federal district court to challenge EPA’s “WOTUS” rule. PLF filed a parallel challenge in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that was consolidated with numerous other challenges to the rule in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The reason for the dual filings was because the federal courts are divided on the question of whether challenges to Clean Water Act jurisdiction should be brought in district (trial) courts or in circuit (appellate) courts. The text of the CWA states that challenges to the agency’s jurisdiction should be brought in district courts, but the Minnesota district court nonetheless dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction and the Sixth Circuit Court favored a “pragmatic approach” to the Act that requires appellate courts to hear such challenges.

The National Association of Manufacturers—one of the opponents of the overly expansive WOTUS rule—petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit case. All other parties to the various court cases were designated as “respondents” in the Supreme Court case, including an extensive array of PLF’s clients. The Supreme Court granted the petition and on January 22, 2018, unanimously ruled that the EPA cannot shelter its “waters of the United States” rule from judicial review by arbitrarily limiting where victims can sue.

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What’s at stake?

  • By redefining waters subject to federal control throughout the Nation, the Corps and EPA have defined their own power to regulate—a power that has no meaningful limits. In an orderly society, no agency should be able to define its own power.
  • The WOTUS rule expands the scope of the Clean Water Act to an unprecedented extent—violating both the terms of the Act and the Constitution’s limits on federal authority. The rule usurps the authority and responsibility of the states, and empowers federal bureaucrats to act as zoning and land use czars for the entire nation.

Case Timeline

SCOTUS Opinion

January 22, 2018 Download

Hunton and Williams Brief

April 27, 2017 Download

Waterkeeper Alliance Support of Petitioner

April 27, 2017 Download

Ohio et al Supporting Petitioner

April 02, 2017 Download

Brief for Petitioner

April 01, 2017 Download

Government Opposition Brief

December 01, 2016 Download

Dismissal

November 08, 2016 Download

Waterkeeper Opening Brief

November 02, 2016 Download

Opening Brief

November 01, 2016 Download

States Opening Brief

November 01, 2016 Download

6th Circuit Briefing Schedule

October 25, 2016 Download

American Farm Bureau Response Brief

October 07, 2016 Download

States Response Brief

October 05, 2016 Download

PLF Response Brief

October 03, 2016 Download

NAM Petition for Writ of Certiorari

September 08, 2016 Download

Government Reply

June 21, 2016 Download

Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

June 08, 2016 Download

Government Motion to Dismiss

May 08, 2016 Download

Petition for Rehearing En Banc

March 23, 2016 Download

Petition to 8th Circuit

October 26, 2015 Download

Amended Complaint

August 12, 2015 Download

6th Circuit Stay

June 29, 2015 Download

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