The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this week in National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense that a federal district court is the proper forum for challenges to the substance of the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule. The holding brings clarification for parties raising similar types of challenges under the federal Clean Water Act, who often filed cases in both the district and appellate courts due to confusion over which court has jurisdiction over the cases. Litigants can now be sure that the case should originate with the federal district court, which provides greater access for similar challenges but could create more inconsistent rulings around the country. The court’s decision arrives at an odd time, with the evolving WOTUS landscape now focused on formulation of a new WOTUS rule to replace the rule that is under fire.
The court’s reasoning
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is not surprising, a result of attention to the express language of the Clean Water Act rather than to several interpretations advanced by the government. The Clean Water Act places authority over Clean Water Act challenges in the federal district courts, with seven exceptions that are to be heard by the appellate courts. The federal government argued that two of those exceptions applied to its drafting of the WOTUS rule. The court disagreed, concluding that WOTUS does not establish an “effluent limitation” nor does it result in the issuance or denial of a permit as argued by the government. The court recognized that it would likely be more efficient and uniform for such challenges to be heard by an appellate court, but that would require a rewriting of the statute.
WOTUS uncertainty remains
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals with an order to dismiss the WOTUS petitions before that court, which consisted of all appellate cases challenging the rule that were previously transferred to the Sixth Circuit by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. Note that the Sixth Circuit had issued a nationwide stay of the WOTUS rule in 2015 pending determination of whether the rule was a valid exercise of agency authority. That stay will presumably disappear with the Sixth Circuit’s dismissal of the case, but some claim that the Sixth Circuit could seek to continue to enforce the nationwide stay. A federal district court in North Dakota had previously issued an injunction against the WOTUS rule in North Dakota and a dozen other states, so that injunction would continue to prevent implementation of the rule in those states if the Sixth Circuit removes its stay.
Further complicating the status of the WOTUS rule are the actions taken by the Trump administration, which issued a proposed rule last November to delay the rule’s effective date to 2020 and a second proposal last February to replace WOTUS with the rule that was in place previously while the EPA develops a new definition of WOTUS. The EPA has not finalized either of those rules. The federal district courts with WOTUS cases currently before them could choose to stay their cases pending the current administration’s rulemaking process. Alternatively, one of the federal district courts could issue a nationwide injunction against the rule.
Consistent with its history, WOTUS remains unclear. Agricultural interests will have to wait and see what happens next.