Perhaps the Justices Just Don’t Like GE: The Supreme Court Grants Certiorari to Review EPA’s Clean Water Act Order Authority

As I noted earlier this month, the Supreme Court denied GE’s certiorari petition seeking to challenge the constitutionality of EPA’s use of unilateral administrative orders issued under section 106 of CERCLA. It thus comes as something of a surprise that the Court today accepted a certiorari petition in Sackett v. EPA. The Sackets are appealing a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that pre-enforcement review is not available to challenge unilateral administrative orders issued by EPA pursuant to section 319 of the Clean Water Act. Lest anyone think that this is simply the Court reining in that liberal 9th Circuit, the 9th Circuit decision followed the lead of all four other circuit courts that have already addressed the question.

So, not only did the Supreme Court grant cert. in a CWA case even though it denied cert. challenging a very similar provision under CERCLA, it did so without a circuit split to resolve.

CERCLA’s order provision does differ slightly from that of the CWA. CERCLA explicitly prohibits pre-enforcement review; the CWA does not. It seemed to me that, while I am firmly on the side of the challengers as to the practical import of unilateral orders, EPA’s legal authority remains fairly solid. As the Court of Appeals noted, even in the absence of a specific statutory prohibition, judicial review is prohibited as long as preclusion “is fairly discernible in the statutory scheme.” Given the distinction between orders and civil enforcement, which is separately provided for in the CWA, and that the CWA does provide for judicial review of civil penalties imposed by EPA, a fair reading of the statute would seem to preclude pre-enforcement review of orders. This conclusion is buttressed by the purpose of the order provision, which is allow EPA to move quickly in particular cases, and the legislative history, which also seems to support preclusion.

The Court’s order granting cert. identified two questions – both the statutory interpretation question and the assertion that a ban on pre-enforcement review violates the due process clause. However, the constitutional claim is precisely what the Court refused to hear in the GE case. Obviously, that is not binding precedent, but why would the Court deny cert. to GE only to grant it three weeks later to the Sacketts?

Whatever the answer, there is a lot riding on this case. Notwithstanding the denial of cert. in the GE case, if the Supreme Court allows pre-enforcement review of orders under the CWA, it will have repercussions beyond the CWA. The CAA order provision would certainly be on shaky ground and, if the Court’s opinion were predicated on constitutional concerns rather than statutory interpretation, CERCLA’s order authority would seem to fail as well.

I should be telling my clients not to get their hopes up, but it’s hard not to get one’s hopes up.

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