When the Supreme Court decided that the district courts had jurisdiction over challenges to the Obama administration WOTUS rule, I described it as a victory of the “give me a break” doctrine of statutory interpretation over the “just plain nuts” theory. I also noted that the Supreme Court had the luxury of ignoring the chaos that would ensue.
Whatever one may think of the merits of the competing theories, two district court decisions in the past week have made clear that it is, indeed, just plain nuts to have these cases before the district courts.
First up, Texas v. EPA, in which Judge George Hanks (an Obama appointee, no less) ruled that EPA and the Corps of Engineers had violated the Administrative Procedure Act in two ways by promulgating the 2015 Rule. First, while the proposed rule had defined “adjacent waters” based hydrogeological criteria, the final rule used specific numerical distance criteria instead. The Court concluded that the use of distance criteria was not sufficiently anticipated in the proposed rule and thus EPA violated the APA when it failed to take comment on the new approach. Judge Hanks also concluded that the 2015 Rule violated the APA because the Agencies relied on what is known as the “Final Connectivity Report,” even though the comment period closed before the Final Connectivity Report was available. As a result, Judge Hanks remanded the 2015 Rule to the Agencies “for proceedings consistent with this order.” Of course, the Agencies have already announced that they intend to replace the 2015 Rule, so I think we all know what those proceedings will be.
Next up, Oklahoma v. EPA, in which Judge Claire Eagan (a Bush appointee, no less!), refused to issue a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the 2015 Rule. Simply put, Judge Eagan was not persuaded by any of the declarations submitted by the plaintiffs that they would suffer irreparable harm if the 2015 Rule were to remain in effect in Oklahoma. She described them as “speculative.” This was particularly troubling because:
the 2015 Rule has been in effect for varying periods of time since this case was filed, and the State can identify no evidence of an aggressive expansion of federal regulation of Oklahoma waters. … This case has been pending for nearly four years, and the Court would have anticipated a showing of substantial, actual harm in support of a motion for preliminary injunction.
We now have a situation where an Obama appointee has remanded the 2015 Rule and a Bush appointee has refused to enjoin its enforcement. I do get some pleasure from these two judges upsetting preconceived notions in this partisan age about what judges do and how they decide.
Beyond that, however, I have no idea what these cases mean for the enforcement of the 2015 Rule. I understand that this may all soon be moot, but in the meantime, it’s hard to defend this as a logical system of judicial review of agency action. Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that it’s just plain nuts.