A Resounding Victory for Clarity and Limited Government: Analyzing the 9-0 Supreme Court Decision in the Sackett Case
In a resounding victory for property rights and the limitation of governmental overreach, the United States Supreme Court rendered a unanimous 9-0 decision in favor of the Sackett family in the landmark case of Sackett v. EPA. The Court's decision offers a decisive blow to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) expansive interpretation of the Clean Water Act, providing much-needed clarity and protection for farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the nation.
“This has been over a decade-long battle to preserve land use rights for every farm and ranch family in the country,” said Arizona Farm Bureau President and southern Arizona rancher Stefanie Smallhouse. “This is a huge win in a fight that never should have happened because it was never about water quality, and it took the Supreme Court to bring sanity back to the Clean Water Act.”
A critical aspect of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Sackett case is the unanimous rejection of the EPA's significant nexus test. This test had been used by the EPA to assert regulatory authority over land and water resources even when there was no clear connection to navigable waters. By striking down this flawed reasoning, the Court restores a crucial balance and ensures that the EPA's authority is not overextended.
The Court's decision brings much-needed clarity to the definition of "waters of the United States" (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act. The ruling emphasizes that the term should be interpreted in line with ordinary parlance, encompassing only permanent bodies of water that are commonly understood as streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. This narrower interpretation ensures that the EPA cannot assert jurisdiction over land features that do not fit this description, providing landowners with a clearer understanding of the limits of federal authority.
Regarding wetlands, the Court held that the EPA's jurisdiction extends only to those wetlands that are indistinguishable from waters of the United States. To establish this connection, the party asserting jurisdiction must demonstrate that the wetland has a continuous surface connection with a relatively permanent body of water linked to traditional interstate navigable waters. This requirement strikes an appropriate balance, preventing the arbitrary expansion of regulatory power while still protecting the nation's vital water resources. The Supreme Court's decision also highlights the EPA's history of disregarding the Clean Water Act, Supreme Court decisions, and common sense. The Court criticizes the EPA's approach as a "freewheeling inquiry" and exposes its weak textual arguments. This scathing rebuke of the EPA's disregard for legal boundaries and its failure to adhere to established legal principles sends a strong message, ensuring that future interpretations of the law are grounded in sound legal reasoning.
While the ruling does not directly invalidate the 2023 WOTUS Rule, the Court's analysis provides a significant blow to its enforceability. The Court underscores the rule's lack of legal support and suggests that it would not withstand judicial scrutiny. Consequently, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps are effectively hindered from enforcing the rule. Pending litigation such as AFBF’s lawsuit challenging the 2023 Rule will likely find greater success in light of this decision, potentially leading to its ultimate dismissal.
The 9-0 Supreme Court decision in the Sackett case represents a crucial victory for property rights, limited government, and the preservation of the rule of law. By rejecting the EPA's flawed significant nexus theory, clarifying the definition of WOTUS, and exposing the agency's history of overreach, the Court has provided landowners with much-needed certainty and protection. While the 2023 WOTUS Rule remains technically in effect, its practical implementation is significantly curtailed. This landmark decision reaffirms the importance of a balanced regulatory framework and ensures that the EPA operates within its intended boundaries, safeguarding the rights of property owners while preserving the nation's rule of law.
“This is a tremendous victory for farmers and ranchers across the country that have been working for decades to provide clarity in compliance with the Clean Water Act,” said Arizona Farm Bureau CEO Philip Bashaw. “We are proud of all the work Arizona Farm Bureau members have done over the years to call into question the regulatory overreach of the EPA and are appreciative of the Supreme Court’s decisive ruling in the Sackett case.”
President Smallhouse added, “I can’t help but feel empathy for the Sackett family, and gratitude for their perseverance in fighting back in the courts to stop the egregious overreach of the federal government for so many years. While at the same time, farmers and ranchers were making their voices heard to the EPA and the Army Corp of Engineers to stop rulemaking outside the scope of the Clean Water Act. Farmers and ranchers will continue to practice careful stewardship of land and water and sleep better tonight, knowing their future is now more sustainable.”