The court heard a
one-hour argument in a case balancing property rights and
environmental law, in this instance the landmark 1972 U.S. Clean
Water Act. A majority of the eight justices appeared sympathetic
toward North Dakota-based Hawkes Co Inc, which is fighting an
Obama administration finding that its property includes
The law mandates that property owners get permits in such
Whether a particular plot of land falls under the law's
jurisdiction is important to developers and other property
owners because such a finding triggers a lengthy and expensive
Hawkes' lawyers argued the company should be able to contest
whether it even needs to go through the permit process.
Liberal and conservative justices alike expressed concern about
the current arrangement's burden on property owners.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said applicants who
disregard a government finding that they need a permit do so at
"great practical risk."
Liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the process "very arduous and
very expensive." Liberal Stephen Breyer called the government
decision that Hawkes needed a permit "perfectly suited for
review in the courts."
Only liberal Elena Kagan expressed support for the government,
raising concerns about the impact a ruling favoring property
owners would have on actions by other government agencies such
as the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Property rights advocates said the permitting process can take
two years and cost up to $270,000, with owners facing penalties
of up to $37,500 a day for noncompliance.
Business groups including the National Association of Home
Builders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 29 states filed
court papers opposing the Obama administration in the case.
The case follows the justices' unanimous 2012 ruling that
property owners facing enforcement action under the Clean Water
Act can ask a court to intervene before being forced to comply
or pay financial penalties.
The Obama administration last year issued a new regulation
defining the scope of federal jurisdiction over bodies of water.
A federal appeals court put the rule on hold after it was
challenged by 18 states.
Only eight justices participated in the case following Justice
Antonin Scalia's February death.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
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