RESPONDENT: United States Army Corps of Engineers
LOCATION: Office of Attorney General
DOCKET NO.: 99-1178
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
CITATION: 531 US 159 (2001)
ARGUED: Oct 31, 2000
DECIDED: Jan 09, 2001
Lawrence G. Wallace - Argued the cause for the respondents
Timothy S. Bishop - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
The Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) selected an abandoned sand and gravel pit as a solid waste disposal site. Excavation trenches on the site had previously become ponds for migrating birds. Because some trenches would have to be filled in, the SWANCC contacted the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to determine if a landfill permit was required under the Clean Water Act (CWA), which authorizes the Corps to issue permits allowing the discharge of dredged or fill material into "navigable waters." Under the CWA, "navigable waters" are defined as "the waters of the United States" and the Corps regulations define such waters to include intrastate waters, of which damage could affect interstate commerce. Subsequently, the Corps denied the SWANCC a permit. The District Court ruled in SWANCC's favor. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that Congress has authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate intrastate waters.
May the provisions of the Clean Water Act be extended to intrastate waters? Does Congress have the authority under the Commerce Clause to exercise such power?
Media for Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of EngineersAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 31, 2000 in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 09, 2001 in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers
William H. Rehnquist:
I have the opinion of the Court to announce in two cases.
The first is 99-1178, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County versus the Untied States Army Corps of Engineers. Here the Solid Waste Agency purchased an abandoned sand and gravel pit of the disposal of its baled non-hazardous waste.
The balefill project called for some of the sites permanent and seasonal ponds to be filled.
Under a Section of the Clean Water Act, passed by Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers has regulatory authority over the discharge of fill material into navigable waters.
The Corps has interpreted this language to include discharge into non-navigable, isolated, intrastate waters observed as a habitat for migratory birds.
The Corps found that the ponds of the old mining site fell under this so-called Migratory Bird Rule and refused to issue a discharge permit.
The Solid Waste Agency filed suit arguing that the Corps has exceeded its statutory authority in interpreting Clean Water Act.
The District Court rejected its argument and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
It held that the Clean Water Act reached as many waters as the Commerce Clause allowed, and that the destruction of habitat for migratory birds substantially affects interstate commerce.
In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today, we reverse.
The Clean Water Act defines navigable waters as waters of the United States, although we have previously held that the Act extends the wetlands actually abutting on a navigable waterway.
We have never held that it extends to isolated ponds that have no significant nexus to navigable waters.
The plain meaning of the statue precludes us from doing so now.
Congress intended the term navigable to have at least some import, and the Corps’ position would require to read it out of the statute completely.
Nonetheless, the Corps submits that the amendments of the Clean Water Act in 1977 demonstrate Congress’ awareness of and acquiescence to the Migratory Bird Rule, but this subsequent legislative history does not convinced us that Congress intended to displace the original meaning of the statute.
The Corps also contends that the Bird Rule is reasonable and should it be afforded deference, but warrant administrative interpretation of the statute invokes the outer limits of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause.
We expect a clear indication that Congress intended that result.
The exertion of federal authority under the Migratory Bird Rule raises significant constitutional questions.
Yet there is nothing approaching a clear statement from Congress that it intended to regulate isolated, intrastate ponds.
We therefore hold the Corps exceeded its authority under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act in asserting jurisdiction over the Solid Waste Agency’s side.
Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer join.