Sending a Message on WOTUS?

Posted on June 2, 2016 by Patrick A. Parenteau

The May 31 decision in Hawkes may be less important for what it says about the reviewability of jurisdictional determinations (JDs) under the Clean Water Act than for what is says about the far more consequential stakes in the pending challenges to EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka WOTUS), which will undoubtedly find its way to the Court following a decision by the Sixth Circuit which is expected before the end of the year.

Contrary to my prediction the Court did rule (unanimously) that JDs are final agency actions subject to review under the APA. In an opinion penned by Chief Justice Roberts the Court upheld the conclusion of the Eighth Circuit but substituted a different test for finality, one that emerged during oral argument and one that introduces a novel and perhaps questionable rationale. The key question was whether JDs have legal consequences. In roundabout fashion, Roberts concluded they did because a positive finding of jurisdiction meant that the applicant was denied the advantage of a negative determination (or NJD). That had the effect of denying the applicant the benefit of what Roberts called a “safe harbor” provision contained, not in the statute or implementing regulations, but in a 2015 Memorandum of Agreement between by EPA and the Corps. Roberts read the MOA as creating a legal right – similar to a covenant not to sue – binding the government to a five year commitment not to revisit the NJD, an interpretation the government vigorously disputed as pointed out by Justice Ginsburg in her concurrence.

This ruling could have significant practical effects. Since 2008 the Corps and EPA have issued over 400,000 JDs of which approximately 40% were approved JD’s. Under the MOA, the process has become more formal, giving it at least the appearance if not the reality of adjudication. The formality of the process convinced a number of the Justices, particularly Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan, that JDs should be considered final actions under the Abbott Labs test. They emphasized the fact that under the MOA the agencies were not simply giving advice to the public. This raises the question whether the agencies may want to rethink the MOA and consider revising the safe harbor provision to make clear it is not binding. The Solicitor raised this possibility during the oral argument (transcript at p 16 lines 16-25).

Pursuing that route, however, runs the risk of further alienating Justice Kennedy and the government can ill afford to lose his potentially crucial vote if and when the Clean Water Rule reaches the Court. In his concurring opinion, joined not surprisingly by Justices Alito and Thomas, Kennedy went out of his way to take several pot shots at the Clean Water Act and the agencies implementation of it. Referring to “the Act’s ominous reach” Kennedy said it “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the Government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the Nation.”  During oral argument Kennedy offered the view that the CWA is “arguably unconstitutionally vague, and certainly harsh in the civil and criminal penalties it puts into practice.”

It is too soon to write the obituary for the Clean Water Rule. But Kennedy’s vote is more in doubt now than when he authored the concurring opinion in Rapanos showing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of both the values enshrined in the CWA and the constitutional issues it raises. Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test, widely accepted as controlling by the lower courts, was the blueprint EPA and the Corps used to write the rule. Given these more recent statements, that may not be enough to win his approval. The fate of the rule may well depend on how soon and by whom the vacancy on the Court is filled.



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