Three-Minute Legal Talks: Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency

Wetlands provide important functions to ecosystems. They reduce the impact of pollution, provide homes for animals and protect land from flooding. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, giving the Environmental Protection Agency oversight in protecting the country’s bodies of water, including wetlands. With these safeguards, however, compliance can come at a cost. Real estate development can be delayed—or halted altogether.

On October 3, 2022, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency where property owners were petitioning for the right to build a home on their property without securing a federal permit. At its core, the case challenges the EPA’s ability to enforce its regulations on wetland properties and questions whether its rules are sufficiently clear.

In just three minutes, Todd Wildermuth, UW Law Associate Teaching Professor, covers the case and warns of the possible consequences the ruling may have on property owners, the environment and the EPA.

Read the Transcript

Todd Wildermuth: Hello, my name is Todd Wildermuth and I direct the Environmental Law Program at UW Law.

Three-Minute Legal Talks: Can you give a brief overview of the U.S. Supreme Court case Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency?

TW: Yes, this is a case about whether the federal government can regulate certain kinds of private property. In this case, specifically, the Sacketts own property that is 300 feet away from a lake and about 30 feet away from the nearest stream. The land is wetland, and they want to build on that. The county said they could, and the federal government then said they couldn't. And the Sacketts would still like to build there.

TMLT: What are the arguments for both sides?

TW: Yeah, the Sacketts believe that they should be able to develop this property and that the federal government should not be able to tell them no. Very specifically, they believe that the Clean Water Act does not allow the EPA to reach onto this kind of property. They would like to be able to develop it. They would like to not have to get a permit. And even if the federal government does have the authority to regulate this kind of property, the Sacketts believe that the rules around the development of these kinds of wetlands are unclear and need to be clearer. And they would like the federal court to make them clearer.

The EPA obviously believes that this is the kind of wetland that they can regulate, and that Congress meant them to regulate. So, at the Supreme Court, they argue that they do, can and should continue to be able to regulate these kinds of wetland properties.

TMLT: How could this case affect an average American?

TW: If you are a private property owner, and you have wetlands on your property like these, well, this is obviously pretty important to you because it is possible then that the federal government can restrict your use of that property. You would have to get a permit. And you might have to take certain kinds of actions to protect the wetland. And you might have to comply with certain kinds of rules.

TMLT: How could it affect the environment?

TW: If you add up enough of these types of properties, we might end up losing a lot of wetlands. And wetlands are important because they filter water, they provide habitat for things that need wetlands, and they also control a certain amount of pollution through filtering. So, if the federal government can't regulate them, and states won't regulate them, then we may end up with fewer of these kinds of wetlands in the world and they serve important functions.

TMLT: How could it affect the EPA?

TW: It really depends on what the court does. The court could have a very narrow ruling that maintains the status quo, or they could narrowly limit the scope of the EPA, or, as this court has done lately, they could use this as an opportunity to rule more broadly on slightly bigger issues about how much the federal government can regulate environment generally.