It’s bad enough that the politicians who run our government create megalithic and bureaucratic monstrosities to rule our lives with, but it’s even worse when those agencies begin to mutate and exercise presumed power to harass the very citizens they are supposed to serve. Several of our government agencies engage in citizen harassment, intimidation, and persecution that is much more characteristic of a fascistic system than a democratic one. And woe to the citizen caught in their crosshairs, as the Sackett’s from Priest Lake discovered, much to their dismay!
Michael and Chantell Sackett bought their “dream” property, about 2/3 of an acre, hundreds of yards away from the lake, in part of a building development back in 2007. They proceeded to develop the lot in preparation for building a modest three bedroom home.
The EPA showed up and issued a cease and desist order claiming the ground was classified as “wetlands.” Visiting with Michael this week, he said there’s a row of houses and a county road between his property and the edge of the lake, and no other water source, or standing water, on their property.
The Sackets stopped the property development per the EPA order, and researched the property more fully. They learned that the data the EPA was using to classify their property was erroneous, as it was not on their “wetlands inventory.” When confronted with the Sackett’s finding, the EPA said that sometimes their data is not accurate, yet insisted that the Sacketts were still obligated to comply with the order.
Meantime, the EPA threatened fines of $32,500 to $75,000 a day if the Sacketts failed to return the property to its former state, and plant non-indigenous flora. But incredibly, there was no means to appeal the diktat of the federal agency. They couldn’t even take the issue to court against the agency! But they tried. And even though they were deprived of their day in court against the EPA by a federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court, in a rare unanimous decision last week in Sackett v. EPA, said property owners have every right to challenge bureaucratic fiat in court.
Idaho Congressman Raúl Labrador issued a statement saying, “The federal government is an intimidating force against ordinary citizens, and standing up to its bureaucracy requires extraordinary bravery. Thanks to the unwavering courage and selfless sacrifice of the Sacketts, Americans everywhere will be guaranteed the right to appeal a decision imposed by a government agency.”
Mike Sackett said in a statement after the decision, “We are very thankful to the Supreme Court for affirming that we have rights, and that the EPA is not a law unto itself and that the EPA is not beyond the control of the courts and the Constitution. The EPA used bullying and threats of terrifying fines, and has made our life hell for the past five years. It said we could not go to court and challenge their bogus claim that our small lot had ‘wetlands’ on it. As this nightmare went on, we rubbed our eyes and started to wonder if we were living in some totalitarian country. Now, the Supreme Court has come to our rescue, and reminded the EPA — and everyone — that this is still America, and Americans still have rights under the Constitution.”
In the courtroom, Justice Antonin Scalia, mocked the EPA’s view that the Sacketts’ small lot was protected by federal law as part of the “navigable waters” of the United States, pointing out that the Sackets had never “seen a ship or other vessel cross their yard.” Scalia insisted that they are entitled to a civil hearing before the agency to contest the EPA’s jurisdiction over their property.
In a concurring opinion for the case, Justice Samuel Alito accurately noted that, despite the ruling, “the combination of the uncertain reach of the Clean Water Act and draconian penalties imposed for the sort of violations alleged in this case still leaves most property owners with little practical alternative but to dance to the EPA’s tune.”
The court decision doesn’t change the laws regarding what constitutes a “wetland,” nor does it force the EPA to limit their bullying tactics to their “wetlands inventory,” but it does give landowners the ability to at least challenge the EPA’s strong-arm tactics against property owners.
Government, and its hoard of agencies and bureaucracies, was not created by divine unction, and are not infallible. They are to serve the people, not rule over them in totalitarian fashion. With the tsunami of government control swamping individual freedom, it was encouraging to see the Supreme Court vote unanimously to help protect individual property owners from tyrannical bureaucratic overreach. Those in government service should never forget that they are to serve “We the People.”
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