Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Waters of the United States Rule

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017
Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law

Written by:  Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Update:  On January 25, 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a motion to hold the WOTUS litigation in the Sixth Circuit in abeyance (putting an issue on hold) while the Supreme Court reviews whether the Sixth Circuit has proper jurisdiction to hear the WOTUS litigation. 

The Supreme Court of the United States has accepted a petition to hear an appeal from a Waters of the United States (WOTUS) ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. As discussed in our February 2016 blog post (available here), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear challenges to the Clean Water Rule (WOTUS Rule). Proposed by the U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, the controversial WOTUS Rule attempts to expand the geographic extent of waterways considered to be “waters of the United States” that are subject to the Clean Water Act.

A background on the WOTUS Rule in the Sixth Circuit

On April 21, 2016, the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that federal courts of appeal, and not federal district courts, have proper jurisdiction to hear cases involving the WOTUS Rule. In that case, numerous states argued that federal district courts should have jurisdiction to hear WOTUS Rule cases. However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that federal appeals courts had exclusive jurisdiction over the review of the WOTUS Rule. Now that ruling is being challenged before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Challenging the ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals   

A private manufacturing association—the National Association of Manufacturers, is bringing the case before the Supreme Court.  The association previously challenged the WOTUS Rule in federal district court and in the court of appeals. The question presented to the Supreme Court by the National Association of Manufacturers is whether the Sixth Circuit incorrectly decided that the federal courts of appeal have the exclusive jurisdiction under federal law to review the WOTUS Rule. The Supreme Court could decide that the federal appeals courts do not have exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases involving the WOTUS Rule, in which case the WOTUS Rule could be challenged in federal district courts instead of only in federal courts of appeal.

Implications

The upcoming change of administration may lead to uncertainty for the future of the WOTUS Rule. The incoming Trump Administration has proposed eliminating the WOTUS Rule altogether. The U.S. EPA and U.S Army Corps of Engineers may be directed to dismantle the WOTUS Rule if the executive branch chooses to eliminate it. That would cause the question before the Supreme Court to become a moot point. The Supreme Court may not even rule on the jurisdictional issue brought by the National Association of Manufacturers, if the incoming administration eliminates the WOTUS Rule quickly.

Some legislators in Washington agree with the incoming Trump administration’s position on the WOTUS Rule.  Members of the Senate introduced Senate Resolution 12 (SR 12) on January 12, 2017. SR 12 expresses the position that the U.S. Senate formally requests that the Administrator of the EPA and the Chief of Engineers of the Army Corps of Engineers eliminate the WOTUS Rule altogether.  However, SR 12 has not passed in the U.S. Senate and is currently pending. While SR 12 may not force any official action to repeal the WOTUS Rule, it shows support for the incoming administration’s plans to repeal the rule. We can expect WOTUS issues to remain hotly debated in 2017 as either the executive or the judicial branch addresses the WOTUS Rule.

U.S. Senate Resolution 12 is available here. Read the Sixth Circuit’s opinion issued February 22, 2016: 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.  

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