The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) agreed on Friday to review an important Clean Water Act (CWA) decision issued by the Eighth Circuit in Hawkes Co., Inc., et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 13-3067 (April 10, 2015).

The issue presented for SCOTUS is whether an Approved Jurisdictional Determination — the first step in the wetlands permitting process — is immediately reviewable. The Supreme Court showed similar interest in  Sackett v. EPA, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012). See our earlier blog on the Sackett decision.  At issue in Sackett was an EPA compliance order issued under the CWA requiring that the developer cease its filling activity of an allegedly regulated wetland. Later, rather than sooner, judicial review can leave the landowner open to considerable expenses.

In Sackett, SCOTUS found the compliance order to be reviewable once issued, so that the landowner did not have to await EPA’s judicial enforcement of that order. Following Sackett, the courts have split as to whether  an Approved Jurisdictional Determination is similarly reviewable — with the Eighth Circuit holding yes, and the Fifth Circuit holding no.

In Hawkes, the plaintiff sought to mine peat from wetland property. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) upset that business plan when it issued an Approved Jurisdictional Determination that the property constituted “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), and therefore the company was  required to obtain a permit to discharge dredged or fill materials into these “navigable waters.”

Review of the Approved Jurisdictional Determination was brought before the District Court. The District Court concluded that an Approved Jurisdictional Determination, although the consummation of the Corps’ decisionmaking process, was not a “final agency action” subject to judicial review within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 704. While the appeal of that decision was pending before the Eighth Circuit, a panel of the Fifth Circuit reached a similar conclusion. Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 761 F.3d 383 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 83 U.S.L.W. 3291 (U.S. Mar. 23, 2015) (No. 14-493).

The Eighth Circuit concluded that the District Court (as well as the Fifth Circuit in Belle) “misapplied the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012),” and reversed the District Court opinion.

The SCOTUS determination could have heightened importance in the context of the EPA and the Corps recent release of its Final Clean Water Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States.” We had blogged about the new rule when it was published. The new WOTUS rule will substantially increase the number of potential wetlands, making challenges to the Corps’ Approved Jurisdictional Determinations more likely if SCOTUS determines that such a determination is judicially reviewable.