I constantly remind Republicans and Tea Partiers that the same civil justice system used by trial lawyers to file medical malpractice and product liability cases is also utilized by conservative trial lawyers to file civil suits to protect property rights, religious liberty, gun owners’ rights, and parental rights from government at all levels. Here are two more cases that illustrate the need to protect our constitutional rights.
1. Who would have believed that a simple home construction project could turn into a Supreme Court case? In 2005, Mike and Chantell Sackett bought a small piece of land in a residential subdivision in Idaho, so they could build their own house, and they obtained all the permits required under the law. But as they began building the house, the EPA suddenly informed them, without prior warning, that their land is “wetlands” under federal law, and ordered the Sacketts to return the state of the property to EPA’s liking or suffer $37,500 per day in fines. The Sacketts hired experts on their own dime who certified that their parcel is not wetland, but the EPA didn’t care. When the Sacketts filed suit in federal court against EPA, the EPA challenged their constitutional right to bring such a suit, alleging they would first have to restore their property, seek a “permit” (which costs twelve times the purchase price of the land), and then file a lawsuit when the permit was denied.
The federal district court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with EPA, but the Supreme Court has granted the cert petition filed by the Sacketts’ attorneys at the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation. The issues are whether landowners can sue EPA in court immediately after receiving an EPA compliance order issued under the Clean Water Act; and if not, whether that preclusion violates the Due Process Clause of the Constitution? In the brief filed this month with the Court, PLJ framed the situations as follows:
The Sacketts have never been offered any opportunity for meaningful review of the compliance order. EPA has no administrative process the exhaustion of which will produce an action reviewable in court. The Clean Water Act’s compliance order enforcement provisions do not provide meaningful review, either. The Sacketts cannot initiate such review, but instead are left to the mercy and whim of EPA, never certain whether or when the agency will bring an enforcement action. Such review is available, if at all, only by ignoring or violating the compliance order and thereby incurring the potential for sanctions of up to $37,500 per day. Even if the Sacketts comply with the order, they still cannot seek judicial review.
The Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their grave. This is bureaucratic dictatorship of the type that Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and other patriots fought with their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.”
2. Imagine that you are hosting some friends once a week at your house to discuss passages from the Old or New Testament or the Koran, when the city government accuses you of improperly running a church, fining you $300 and demanding that you get a city permit before inviting your friends back. Think you would sue the city? That’s what happened to Chuck and Stephanie Fromm in the City of San Juan Capistrano, California. A city official told Mr. Fromm that he needed a permit to hold regular gatherings of more than three people, and the Fromms would be fined $500 per meeting if they didn’t get one! The Fromms are appealing the city’s decision to the California Superior Court in Orange County, with the help of the Pacific Justice Institute (no relation to the Pacific Legal Foundation cited above).
Only in a PC-crazy environment could a group of four people be labeled a “church,” just because they’re studying their scripture. And it’s especially ironic that this case occurred in a city founded as a religious mission!
Civil suits and trial lawyers are just as critical to protect social conservative causes as they are claims based in economics. Any effort to limit access to the civil justice system compromises everyone’s right to seek justice and prevent governmental bodies from imposing their will over our lives.