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Tipsheet

Supreme Court Delivers Another Rebuke of Biden EPA Overreach

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The Supreme Court of the United States on Thursday delivered another stinging rebuke of the Biden Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) overreach with a unanimous opinion essentially trashing the administration's "Waters of the United States" (WOTUS) policy that relies on an extremely broad interpretation of the Clean Water Act to restrict property owners' activities on private land that's deemed untouchable by EPA bureaucrats.

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Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in the case, explaining more about how the Biden EPA ran afoul, specifically in the case of Idaho residents Chantell and Michael Sackett, from whom the case — Sackett v. EPA — originated. 

This case concerns a nagging question about the outer reaches of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the principal federal law regulating water pollution in the United States. By all accounts, the Act has been a great success. Before its enactment in 1972, many of the Nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams were severely polluted, and existing federal legislation had proved to be inadequate. Today, many formerly fetid bodies of water are safe for the use and enjoyment oft he people of this country.There is, however, an unfortunate footnote to this success story: the outer boundaries of the Act’s geographical reach have been uncertain from the start. The Act applies to “the waters of the United States,” but what does that phrase mean? Does the term encompass any backyard that is soggy enough for some minimum period of time? Does it reach “mudflats, sand flats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, [or] playa lakes?” How about ditches, swimming pools, and puddles?

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The lack of specificity in the Clean Water Act allowed the Biden administration to declare basically any waters as falling under its regulatory jurisdiction, even when said waters were separated from other water by dry land and entirely within private property. 

As Justice Alito further explained in his opinion, "this interpretation is inconsistent with the text and structure of the CWA," and, "[b]eyond that, it clashes with 'background principles of construction' that apply to the interpretation of the relevant statutory provisions" under which "the EPA must provide clear evidence that it is authorized to regulate in the manner it proposes."

"First, this Court 'require[s] Congress to enact exceedingly clear language if it wishes to significantly alter the balance between federal and state power and the power of the Government over private property," Alito continued, noting the "[r]egulation of land and water use lies at the core of traditional state authority."

An overly broad interpretation of the CWA’s reach would impinge on this authority. The area covered by wetlands alone is vast—greater than the combined surface area of California and Texas. And the scope of the EPA’s conception of “the waters of the United States” is truly staggering when this vast territory is supplemented by all the additional area, some of which is generally dry, over which the Agency asserts jurisdiction. Particularly given the CWA’s express policy to “preserve” the States’ “primary” authority over land and water use, §1251(b), this Court has required a clear statement from Congress when determining the scope of “the waters of the United States.”

The EPA, however, offers only a passing attempt to square its interpretation with the text of §1362(7), and its“significant nexus” theory is particularly implausible. It suggests that the meaning of “the waters of the United States” is so “broad and unqualified” that, if viewed in isolation, it would extend to all water in the United States.

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In sum, we hold that the CWA extends to only those “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right,” so that they are “indistinguishable” from those waters. Rapanos, 547 U. S., at 742, 755 (plurality opinion) (emphasis deleted); see supra, at 22. This holding compels reversal here.The wetlands on the Sacketts’ property are distinguishable from any possibly covered waters.

We reverse the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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This was not the first loss for the Biden EPA before SCOTUS, and it seems like the administrative state is in big trouble whenever it finds itself in front of these justices. With the Supreme Court's recent announcement that it would take up Chevron deference — creating an opportunity to essentially annihilate the administrative state — it seems clear that reining in the out of control and generally unaccountable federal government will become one of the greatest legacies of the current court.

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