Does this make sense to you? Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule. And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway! That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.

This case is among many seeking to block the rule. The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.” But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation.

The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly. The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.

The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination. The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making. Pants first, then shoes.

Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action? No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule. The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation.

Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal? Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing. Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record. Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.