The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this week in National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense that a federal district court is the proper forum for challenges to the substance of the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule. The holding brings clarification for parties raising similar types of challenges under the federal Clean Water Act, who often filed cases in both the district and appellate courts due to confusion over which court has jurisdiction over the cases. Litigants can now be sure that the case should originate with the federal district court, which provides greater access for similar challenges but could create more inconsistent rulings around the country. The court’s decision arrives at an odd time, with the evolving WOTUS landscape now focused on formulation of a new WOTUS rule to replace the rule that is under fire.
The court’s reasoning
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is not surprising, a result of attention to the express language of the Clean Water Act rather than to several interpretations advanced by the government. The Clean Water Act places authority over Clean Water Act challenges in the federal district courts, with seven exceptions that are to be heard by the appellate courts. The federal government argued that two of those exceptions applied to its drafting of the WOTUS rule. The court disagreed, concluding that WOTUS does not establish an “effluent limitation” nor does it result in the issuance or denial of a permit as argued by the government. The court recognized that it would likely be more efficient and uniform for such challenges to be heard by an appellate court, but that would require a rewriting of the statute.
WOTUS uncertainty remains
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals with an order to dismiss the WOTUS petitions before that court, which consisted of all appellate cases challenging the rule that were previously transferred to the Sixth Circuit by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. Note that the Sixth Circuit had issued a nationwide stay of the WOTUS rule in 2015 pending determination of whether the rule was a valid exercise of agency authority. That stay will presumably disappear with the Sixth Circuit’s dismissal of the case, but some claim that the Sixth Circuit could seek to continue to enforce the nationwide stay. A federal district court in North Dakota had previously issued an injunction against the WOTUS rule in North Dakota and a dozen other states, so that injunction would continue to prevent implementation of the rule in those states if the Sixth Circuit removes its stay.
Further complicating the status of the WOTUS rule are the actions taken by the Trump administration, which issued a proposed rule last November to delay the rule’s effective date to 2020 and a second proposal last February to replace WOTUS with the rule that was in place previously while the EPA develops a new definition of WOTUS. The EPA has not finalized either of those rules. The federal district courts with WOTUS cases currently before them could choose to stay their cases pending the current administration’s rulemaking process. Alternatively, one of the federal district courts could issue a nationwide injunction against the rule.
Consistent with its history, WOTUS remains unclear. Agricultural interests will have to continue to wait and see what happens next.
Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
On June 27, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) announced their plan to repeal the Obama Administration’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule. The EPA and the Corps’ proposal involves two steps. First, the agencies propose to “rescind” Obama’s WOTUS rule and “re-codify,” or re-enter, the definition of WOTUS “that existed prior to 2015” into the federal regulations. The pre-2015 rule would serve as a placeholder until the agencies are able to carry out the second part of their plan. The second part of the plan involves developing and proposing a new definition of WOTUS. This announcement comes several months after President Trump called for either a repeal or revision of the WOTUS Rule in his February 28, 2017 Executive Order (EO). The EO was quickly followed by the EPA and other agencies filing a Notice of Intention to Review and Rescind or Revise the Clean Water Rule (Notice). The EO can be found here, and the Notice here.
What was the Obama Administration’s WOTUS Rule?
The WOTUS Rule went into effect on August 28, 2015. The Rule expanded the meaning of “waters of the United States,” or those waters protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA), to include “tributaries to interstate waters, waters adjacent to interstate waters, waters adjacent to tributaries of interstate waters, and other waters that have a significant nexus to interstate waters.” Furthermore, the Rule stated that tributaries are WOTUS when they flow into navigable waters, even if their flow was not constant. The rule also elaborated on the meaning of “adjacent waters.” For more information about the WOTUS Rule, see our blog post from earlier this year. The Rule as it was released in the summer of 2015 can be found here.
How will “Waters of the United States” be defined?
In the short term
Step one of the EPA and the Corps’ plan calls for a repeal of the Obama Administration’s definition of WOTUS, and a reimplementation of the WOTUS rule that existed prior to 2015. In order to do this, the agencies are proposing a rule. The proposed rule calls for the Code of Federal Regulations—in particular, 33 C.F.R. §328.3, to be amended to reflect the previous definition of WOTUS. Notably, this definition does not include the Obama Administration’s expanded descriptions of “tributaries” or “adjacent waters.” Furthermore, there is no mention of “significant nexus.” This interim definition of WOTUS proposed by the EPA and the Corps can be found in the proposed rule, here.
In the long term
The second step of the EPA and the Corps’ plan calls for the agencies to perform a “substantive re-evaluation” of the definition of WOTUS. Any re-evaluation of the definition will likely take Trump’s EO into account, which called for the EPA and other agencies to, in any “[f]uture [r]ulemaking,” “consider interpreting the term ‘navigable waters’” as Justice Scalia did in Rapanos v. U.S. The CWA defines “navigable waters” as “waters of the United States, including territorial seas.” Thus, “navigable waters” and “WOTUS” are one in the same. Scalia’s interpretation rejected the idea that navigable waters and WOTUS could come from channels where water flow was only occasional. Justice Scalia asserted that navigable waters/WOTUS must be, for the most part, permanent bodies of water. Given the language in Trump’s EO, it is likely that the second step of the plan will involve a proposed rule that includes a definition of WOTUS that closely resembles Scalia’s interpretation. More information on Scalia’s interpretation can be found in our earlier blog post.
It is important to keep in mind that even if the EPA and the Corps successfully repeal and replace the previous administration’s definition of WOTUS, it is still very likely that opponents will challenge any new definition. Furthermore, both the short term and long term parts of the plan have to go through the rulemaking process, including a comment and review period, before they can become effective. As a result, the debate over the meaning of WOTUS is likely far from finished.
Written by: Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, and Peggy Hall, Asst. Professor, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The controversial “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) Rule suffered three governmental assaults this week. We reported earlier this year about litigation over the Rule and a Senate Resolution urging withdrawal of the Rule. Actions this week in the House of Representatives, the White House and the EPA echo the Senate’s sentiments and push the Rule further towards its demise.
The House Resolution
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Ohio’s Representative Bob Gibbs introduced a resolution on February 27, 2017 stating that the Rule should be vacated. House Resolution 152 declares that the Clean Water Act (from which the Rule derives) is one of the nation’s most important laws whose success requires cooperative federalism, under which federal, state and local governments have a role in protecting water resources. Based upon the foundation of cooperative federalism, “Congress left to the States their traditional authority over land and water, including farmers’ field, non-navigable, wholly intrastate water (including puddles and ponds), and the allocation of water supplies.” The Resolution asserts that the latest revision to the Rule, however, claimed broad federal jurisdiction over water that encroaches upon the authority of the States and undermines the Clean Water Act’s historical exemptions from federal regulation. The Resolution also claims that the EPA failed to follow proper processes when issuing the Rule.
The Executive Order
President Trump’s executive order (EO) issued on February 28, 2017 calls for the EPA and the Army for Civil Works (“Civil Works”, a part of the Army Corps of Engineers) to “rescind or revise” the WOTUS Rule. It is important to note, however, that the EO does not abolish the Rule; it simply orders the two agencies to review the Rule and try to adapt it to the Trump administration’s policies. The EO includes a policy statement explaining that it is in the best interest of the United States to keep “navigable waters… free from pollution,” but there is also a strong interest in promoting economic growth, so any changes to the Rule must balance both of those interests. The EO also gives the Attorney General the discretion to communicate any potential changes to the WOTUS Rule to federal courts with pending WOTUS litigation.
The EO further directs the EPA and Civil Works, when revising or rescinding the WOTUS Rule, to construe “navigable waters” as Justice Scalia did in the Supreme Court case Rapanos v. U.S. Under the Clean Water Act, “navigable waters” are defined as “waters of the United States, including territorial seas.” This means that the terms “navigable waters” and “waters of the United States” are interchangeable. In Rapanos, Justice Scalia, who wrote the decision for a plurality of the Court, asserted that navigable waters/WOTUS cannot be “ordinarily dry channels through which water occasionally or intermittently flows.” Instead, they must be “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water,” or wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to permanent water bodies. Scalia’s interpretation is at odds with the interpretation contained in the Obama administration’s WOTUS Rule.
Agency Response to the Executive Order
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Civil Works acting Secretary Douglas Lamont didn’t waste any time responding to Trump’s EO. On the same day Trump signed the Order, the agencies filed a Notice of Intention to Review and Rescind or Revise the Clean Water Rule. In the notice, the agencies explain their intentions to follow the EO, review the Rule and consider adopting Justice Scalia’s interpretation of navigable waters. The agencies state that they will utilize new rulemaking to “provide greater clarity and regulatory certainty concerning the definition of ‘waters of the United States.’”
Refresher: What’s in the WOTUS Rule?
The Obama Administration’s WOTUS Rule was released in the Federal Register on June 29th, 2015, and went into effect on August 28th, 2015. According to the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers at the time, the rule was meant to “clarify the scope of ‘waters of the United States’...protected under the Clean Water Act.” In particular, the Rule states that a number of bodies of water qualify as WOTUS, such as: “tributaries to interstate waters, waters adjacent to interstate waters, waters adjacent to tributaries of interstate waters, and other waters that have a significant nexus to interstate waters.” The Rule elaborates on the definition of “tributaries,” which are WOTUS if they flow “to a traditional navigable water, an interstate water, or the territorial seas,” regardless of whether the flow is year-round, seasonal, or due to precipitation. Tributaries flowing into navigable and interstate waters that have “a bed and banks,” as well as “an indicator of ordinary high water mark” qualify as WOTUS under the Rule. “Adjacent waters” means “all waters located in whole or in part within 100 feet of the ordinary high water mark” of WOTUS, as well as “all waters within the 100-year floodplain” of WOTUS. Numerous different kinds of water can be “adjacent,” such as “wetlands, ponds, lakes, oxbows,” and “impoundments.” More information about the WOTUS Rule is available here.
Update: On April 21, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for en banc (full court) review of this decision made by agricultural groups and several states.
In a case successfully argued by Ohio’s Solicitor Eric Murphy, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati has determined that it has jurisdiction to hear challenges to the Clean Water Rule (WOTUS Rule) proposed by the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers. The Rule expands the geographic extent of the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) that are subject to the Clean Water Act.
A brief background
When the agencies published the final WOTUS Rule last summer, dozens of parties and 31 states, including Ohio, filed challenges in nine federal district courts and eight federal courts of appeal. The filings raised an immediate uncertainty about whether federal district courts or federal courts of appeal have jurisdiction to review the Rule. Despite this uncertainty, the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota issued a temporary injunction that prevented the Rule’s application in the 13 states that were involved in that district’s litigation. Other district courts in West Virginia and Georgia declined to issue injunctions and instead ruled that they did not have jurisdiction to review the Rule. A federal panel consolidated the cases filed before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the challenge by the State of Ohio. The Sixth Circuit first issued a nationwide stay of the WOTUS Rule last October before turning to the jurisdictional challenges raised by the EPA and Army Corps.
The Sixth Circuit’s fractured opinion
The decision on jurisdiction issued by the Sixth Circuit’s three judge panel is not harmonious. Judge McKeague wrote the court’s opinion and based jurisdiction on two of seven provisions in the Clean Water Act that grant appellate court jurisdiction to review EPA actions: subsection 1369 (b)(1)(E) for actions “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation” under certain sections of the Act and subsection 1369(b)(1)(F), for actions issuing or denying National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. Judge McKeague relies on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that interprets the “other limitations” language in 1369 (b)(1)(E) to include limitations that “indirectly” produce limitations on point source operators and permit issuing authorities. He also cites the Sixth Circuit’s earlier decision in National Cotton Council v. U.S. EPA to conclude that agency actions “issuing or denying” an NPDES permit under 1369(b)(1)(F) include actions creating “regulations governing the issues of permits” and “rules that regulate NPDES permitting procedures,” such as the WOTUS Rule.
A concurring opinion written by Judge Griffin agrees only with the requirement to follow the Sixth Circuit’s previous decision in National Cotton Council. Judge Griffin clarifies that he is bound by but does not agree with the court’s reasoning in that case, and would not otherwise accept jurisdiction under subsections 1369(b)(1)(E) or (F). In a dissenting opinion, Judge Keith agrees with the concurring opinion that neither subsection 1369(b)(1)(E) or (F) grants an appeals court jurisdiction in regards to the WOTUS Rule. Judge Keith also argues that Judge McKeague mistakenly relies upon and overly broadens the National Cotton Council decision, which he believes does not apply to the WOTUS Rule.
Despite the disagreements between the Sixth Circuit Court judges, the decision means that the nationwide stay of the WOTUS Rule remains in effect and the court will proceed to hear the circuit’s consolidated cases that challenge the WOTUS Rule. The court’s decision on jurisdiction applies only to the states within the Sixth Circuit—Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. Given the range of reasoning in the Sixth Circuit’s decision, other federal courts could reach differing decisions on the question of which court has jurisdiction over the cases. If so, we can expect a request for the United States Supreme Court to review the jurisdictional issue. As we expected, the WOTUS Rule challenges will be with us for quite some time.
Read the Sixth Circuit’s opinion for In re: U.S. Dep’t of Defense & U.S. Envtl. Protection Agency Final Rule: Clean Water Rule at http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/16a0045p-06.pdf.