Kansas City, KS; April 20, 2023: Today, Thomas and Amy Villegas filed suit to vindicate their right to a fair hearing after the EPA fined them for removing debris and invasive weeds from land they own.

The Villegases bought a piece of undeveloped land that they planned to use for hunting and other outdoor recreation. When they began the process of removing the downed trees and invasive Phragmite weeds, a neighbor reported them to the EPA. The EPA claimed that these activities discharged pollutants — namely dirt and other fill material — into protected waters, filed an administrative enforcement action against the Villegases, and hauled them in front of an agency administrative law judge to seek a $300,000 fine.

“The Constitution guarantees a fair hearing before a neutral, life-tenured federal judge before the government may deprive citizens like the Villegases of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines,” said Damien Schiff, senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation. “But the Villegases were denied that right when the EPA chose to prosecute them in an in-house tribunal before an unaccountable administrative law judge who works for the agency.”

In-house agency “courts” bear superficial similarities to normal courts, but they lack many of the protections for the rights of the accused that are guaranteed by the Constitution, especially the right of trial by jury. Additionally, administrative law judges are not appointed by the president or confirmed by the Senate, as the Constitution’s appointments clause requires for officers who wield significant authority.

The case is Thomas Villegas, et al. v. Michael S. Regan, et al, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.

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Pacific Legal Foundation is a national nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse. Since our founding in 1973, we challenge the government when it violates individual liberty and constitutional rights. With active cases in 34 states plus Washington, D.C., PLF represents clients in state and federal courts, with 15 wins of 17 cases litigated at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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