Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court decided that Army Corps’ jurisdictional determinations are judicially reviewable. This decision leaves open the question of whether other types of administrative decisions are immediately judicially reviewable.

In a significant victory for owners of private property, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided this week that an Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) jurisdictional determination (JD) is a final agency action judicially reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al., No. 15-290, 578 U.S. ____ (May 31, 2016).

The issue presented was whether a so-called “approved” jurisdictional determination — the government’s determination that a wetland is regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA) thereby requiring a permit to dredge or fill — is immediately reviewable. The Hawkes decision builds on the holding of Sackett v. EPA, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012) (see our earlier blog on the Sackett decision) where SCOTUS concluded that an EPA compliance order issued under the CWA requiring that a developer cease its filling activity of an allegedly regulated wetland was judicially reviewable. SCOTUS rejected the Government’s contention that the landowner has to await EPA’s judicial enforcement of that order.

Following Sackett, the Circuit Courts of Appeal have split as to whether a landowner receiving a JD finding the wetland to be CWA-regulated is final and reviewable — with the Eighth Circuit holding yes, and the Fifth Circuit holding no.

In Hawkes, the plaintiffs sought to mine peat from wetland property. The Corps upset that plan when it issued an approved JD that the property constituted “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), requiring the plaintiffs to obtain a permit to discharge dredged or fill materials into these “navigable waters.” Approved JDs present a definitive statement that waters of the United States are, or are not, present. The Corps also issues “preliminary” JDs that only tell a landowner that waters of the United States “may” be present. Preliminary JDs were not at issue in this case. An approved JD is binding upon the Corps and EPA. For example, where the JD concludes that a CWA-regulated wetland is not involved, it provides the landowner with a “safe-harbor” for five years, under which it is free to develop its property without need to obtain a permit. For this reason, SCOTUS concluded that the JD affects the plaintiffs’ rights and obligations and has legal consequences, making it reviewable.

This SCOTUS determination could have heightened importance in the context of the EPA’s and the Corps’ recent release of the Final Clean Water Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States.” We blogged about this new rule when it was published. The new WOTUS rule will substantially increase the number of potential wetlands, making a challenge to the Corps’ Jurisdictional Determinations more likely now that SCOTUS has decided that they are judicially reviewable.

The Hawkes decision also leaves open questions of whether other types of administrative decisions are immediately judicially reviewable. In a related Law360 Expert Analysis (Water Case Shows Justices Warm To Review Of Fed. Agencies), Andy Perellis notes that “there is potentially a universe of agency actions such as guidance documents or opinion letters that in the past have evaded judicial review that may be reviewable because those agency determinations have immediate consequences.”