Earlier this year, I documented the Obama administration’s abysmal results before the Supreme Court (the two Obamacare cases excepted). Not only is its overall winning percentage much worse than any other modern presidency, but its spate of unanimous losses is truly record-breaking.
And that record has only grown in the last few months. This week the government suffered its fifth unanimous loss of the year – matching its dubious achievement in 2013 with 25 cases still left to be decided – in a property-rights case in which Cato filed an amicus brief, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co.
Hawkes has a somewhat technical background but the case boiled down to this question: Can a landowner – in this case a peat-mining company (nothing to do with scotch, unfortunately) – challenge a government determination that its land is subject to federal regulation? Not whether the land is properly a wetland under the Clean Water Act, but whether the owner can go to court to argue the point in the first place!
Thankfully, all eight justices ruled that yes, this agency action is subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act. If you’re an eagle-eyed reader and think this reminds you of another case from a few years ago, you’re right! In 2012, the Court – also unanimously – ruled essentially the same way in a case called Sackett v. EPA. Yes, that case involved a different government agency and different legal technicalities, but the upshot is the same: if the government does something that hurts your use and enjoyment of your land, you get to go to court to challenge that action.
You’d think this would be a simple proposition, and yet the government insists on fighting it all the way to highest court in the land – and garnering nary a vote. Congratulations to our friends at the Pacific Legal Foundation, who litigated Hawkes and who have now won eight straight cases at the Supreme Court!
Finally, one interesting footnote to Hawkes: The Court took up this case after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had ruled against the government and thus split from an opposite ruling by the Fifth Circuit in an essentially identical case called Kent Recycling Services v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That Hawkes ruling happened but two weeks after the Court had denied review in Kent Recycling. Accordingly, the keen PLF lawyers who also brought Kent Recycling filed an immediate petition for rehearing, which the justices held pending the resolution of Hawkes. That petition will now be Granted, the lower-court ruling Vacated, and the case Remanded – what lawyers call “GVR’d” – for reconsideration (and reversal) in light of Hawkes.
As far as I know, it’s been decades since a cert. denial was not only reconsidered, but turned into a summary reversal on the merits. And it was here at Cato’s Constitution Day conference where John Elwood made what I believe was the first public call for just that outcome (see final panel).