Americans are entitled to due process of the law before the government takes their property or prevents them from using it. The Constitution guarantees it.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't see it that way. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has reminded EPA officials they are not judge, jury and executioner.
In 2007, Idaho residents Chantell and Mike Sackett began building their dream home on a plot of land near a lake. EPA officials arrived quickly and shut the project down. The Sacketts were building on a protected wetland, the agency ruled, and ordered the family to remove the part of the structure they had already built and restore the property to its original state. If they refused, the agency threatened the Sacketts with fines as high as $75,000 a day for noncompliance.
The Sacketts protested and were told by the EPA, a federal judge, and by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, they could not challenge the ruling in court.
And that was that, the EPA believed.
The EPA's ruling was law.
But the Sacketts did not surrender and, with the help of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a watchdog group which represented the Sacketts pro bono, won a major victory. This past Wednesday, in a remarkably rare 9-0 unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, justices ruled the Sacketts had a right to a prompt review of the EPA mandate by judge.
EPA officials had insisted that allowing property owners quick access to the courts to resist such orders undercuts the agency's ability to deal with water pollution. That is nonsense in the Sacketts' case; their home would have had little effect - if any - on water quality. As Justice Antonin Scalia said, mocking the EPA's ruling that the family's small lot was protected by federal law as part of the "navigable waters" of the United States: "never having seen a ship or other vessel cross their yard" the family had a right to question this rule and are entitled to a hearing.
Increasingly during recent years, the EPA has behaved in a high-handed and bullying manner. Let's hope by the Sacketts' refusal to buckle to the EPA, this ruling is the first step in reining in the out-of-control agency.