A win for property rights

In a major victory for property rights and the battle against government overreach, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday in favor of an Idaho couple locked in a wetlands fight with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The decision paves the way for property owners across the country to challenge dubious bureaucratic edicts that limit how they may use their own land.

The case originated in Idaho, where Mike and Chantell Sackett bought a 0.63-acre lot in a subdivision near a scenic lake in the state's panhandle. In 2007, the couple obtained local building permits in order to build a home there.

When site preparation commenced, however, officials from the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers demanded that work stop, claiming they thought the land might contain wetlands, which are regulated by the Clean Water Act.

The agencies subsequently ordered the Sacketts to restore the site to its natural state before construction could begin. The couple faced fines of up to $37,500 a day -- almost $15,000 more per day than they paid for the property -- if they failed to comply.

The couple argued that there was no reasonable way to challenge the ruling without risking huge financial losses because they weren't allowed their day in court until the EPA decided to sue to collect the fines, which could take months or even years.

The agency countered that allowing judicial review of such "compliance orders" would hamper its ability to act quickly to stop potential environmental degradation. That position found a sympathetic ear in the lower courts, including at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court wisely recognized the danger of granting bureaucrats such wide latitude.

If the federal government prevailed, Justice Samuel Alito noted in a concurring opinion, it would "put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency employees."

This is a just and proper outcome. Our constitutional protections don't exist to make things easier for federal agents to impose their will on ordinary Americans. Quite the opposite. Those who appreciate that vital concept will vigorously applaud the court's ruling.