Supreme Court Refuses to Fix the Clean Water Act Mess that Congress Created

The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling on a procedural issue relating to the regulatory definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS).  Specifically, the Supreme Court ruled that challenges to the latest WOTUS definition must be made in district (trial level) courts, not in the courts of appeals.

In the Alert that I wrote when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, I noted the problems with the reasoning that the court of appeals used to conclude that it was the correct court to hear the challenge.  The Supreme Court has now unanimously reversed that court of appeals decision.

Practicality Cannot Overcome Statutory Text

In reversing the court of appeals, the Supreme Court relied on the statutory text.  Even if direct appeals to the courts of appeals would have the practical advantage of resolving challenges to the WOTUS definition more quickly, the text required challenges to begin in the district courts.  Essentially, when faced with statutory text that creates what may be an unwieldly situation, courts are to follow the text, not craft an “interpretation” to allow for more expeditious legal review procedures.

Rejecting Claims of Ambiguity

The government argued that the Clean Water Act’s judicial review procedures are unclear, so that courts had discretion to craft practical legal review procedures.  The Supreme Court rejected that argument, and determined that while the judicial review procedures in the Clean Water Act may be unwieldly, Congress had clearly mandated the unwieldly procedures.  In essence, the Court refused to fix the procedural mess that Congress created.

Ambiguous statutory language gives more discretion to administrative agencies and courts to make their own interpretations.  Recent administrative law decisions indicate a growing reluctance of courts to find statutes to be ambiguous; rather, courts seem more determined to insist that the text control, even when the text may seem illogical or impractical.

For a copy of the Supreme Court’s opinion click here.


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