Friday, March 23, 2012

The EPA and the Court

A couple of days ago the Supreme Court ruled against the EPA. In case you missed it, here's what the case was about:

In 2007, a couple bought some land near a lake and began building a 3-bedroom house. Before they got very far the EPA notified them that they had damaged a wetland. They were to stop all construction and repair the damage. Failure to do so could result in a fine of $25,000 per day.

The couple tried to challenge this in court but ran into an obstacle. The EPA had not actually issued a ruling against them, it had only warned them that it would. The EPA considered their compliance to be voluntary and would only allow them to take the case to court after an EPA review on the merits of the case.

In other words, the only way that they could challenge the ruling would be to continue construction until the EPA actually levied ruinous fines. Then they could take a chance on winning their case in court and having the fines waived or losing and being responsible for fines that they could never pay.

The property owners argued that they should be able to sue based on the original order. The EPA argued that allowing people to challenge them in the court would slow the EPA's good works and hurt everyone.

The Court sided with the property owners 9-0 that they should be able to take the EPA to court.

On one hand this was a no-brainer. Who would expect the highest court to support an argument against taking arguments to the courts? The Justices had a vested interest which probably explains their unanimity.

On the other hand, the EPA was using a variation of the same argument that the government will use in justifying the Individual Mandate. This holds that the Mandate does so much public good that it's legality should not be questioned. It you listen to the supporters, this is the essence of their argument, that the whole thing falls apart without the Individual Mandate so it has to be upheld. The fact that this is a significant expansion of the government's authority is waived aside as immaterial.

Will the Court agree or will it rule that Congress exceeded its Constitutional limits? The EPA ruling shows that the Court does not always accept the argument in favor of giving up liberty in the name of the common good.

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