The Supreme Court is going to do what, exactly? Another update on MCRC v. EPA

It turns out Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, the mining haul route case I’ve followed for a few years, is not dead yet. Back in June, the Sixth Circuit denied a petition for an en banc hearing. That seemed the end of it. Now, a TV6 report says that the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Mark Miller is talking — once again — about Supreme Court review.

A Petition for a Writ of Certiorari was filed on October 25th. A response is due on November 28th.*

Maybe Miller knows something about the composition of the court post-Kavanaugh I don’t. The Sixth Circuit firmly rejected his argument — that the EPA’s objections to the Marquette County Road Commission’s plan for County Road 595 were tantamount to a “veto.” Now, he believes

the U.S. Supreme Court will read our petition, review our case on the merits, ultimately, and agree with us that the road commission’s plan as approved by the state should at least be considered by a judge as compared to the EPAs decision to reject that plan.

If I follow what Miller’s saying here, the Supreme Court is going to review a case that was denied en banc hearing at the Sixth Circuit, and then recommend that a judge — what judge? an administrative law judge? in what court?  — consider the Road Commission’s plan and weigh it against the objections of the EPA. I think I got that right.

Jim Iwanicki, Marquette County Road Commissioner, has another set of expectations:

the purpose of the lawsuit is to have the U.S. Supreme Court review the decision of the Michigan Appeals Court to side with the EPA and to get an explanation as to why the the EPA turned down the permit in the first place….Iwanicki says he wants answers on the EPA’s decision. He says the road commission was not given a solid answer on why the EPA ruled against the road’s construction.

The construction of 595 would have gone through undeveloped wetlands.

“There is no mechanism right now to build 595,” said Iwanicki. “Right now it is more of the issue of, were we treated fairly and was the permit looked at properly. If not then those people that didn’t look at it properly should be addressed and called forward on the carpet.”

I wonder if these are actual expectations, or if Miller and Iwaniki — and StandU.P., the dark money 501c4 behind the push for CR 595 — are rabble rousing.

*Update: on November 21st, Solicitor General Noel Francisco requested, and the Supreme Court granted, an extension to December 28th to file a response. The reason given: “the heavy press of earlier assigned cases to the attorneys handling this matter.”

Second Update, 4 December: Two amicus curiae briefs were filed on November 28th in support of the Marquette County Road Commission by the Southeastern Legal Foundation and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the County Road Association of Michigan and Stand U.P., the 501c4 dark money organization promoting CR595. Both briefs take their cue from the argument that failed in the Sixth Circuit, asserting that the question before the court involves an “arbitrary and capricious EPA veto.”

Update, 19 December. The Department of Justice has requested a second extension, until January 28, 2019, to file a response. The reason given is, again, “because the attorneys with principal responsibility for preparation of the government’s response have been heavily engaged with the press of previously assigned matters with proximate due dates.” The request goes on to note that counsel for the Marquette County Road Commission does not oppose a second extension. So we can’t expect anything like a resolution in this case until the New Year.

Update, 28 January 2019. The Environmental Protection Agency responded today to the Road Commission’s petition for Supreme Court review.  As expected, the reply focuses on the fact the Road Commission “voluntarily discontinued the permitting process” back in 2015, then turned around and brought suit, saying the EPA had acted in an arbitrary and capricious way.

The EPA replies that this is a mess of the Road Commission’s own making.

To be sure, EPA’s objections may have had the practical effect of making the overall Section 404 permitting process (if petitioner had continued to pursue it) more protracted than it otherwise would have been…. At most, however, EPA’s objections required petitioner to continue with a permitting process that petitioner was obligated to invoke regardless of EPA’s objections—a requirement “different in kind and legal effect from the burdens attending what heretofore has been considered to be final agency action.”

The Road Commission has repeatedly failed to convince the lower courts of its central contention, that EPA objections amounted to a veto.  Instead, when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality declined in July of 2015 to grant or deny the Road Commission’s application, permitting authority for CR 595 transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Road Commission could have simply continued the permitting process.  Why didn’t they? Instead, they’ve ended up here, at the door of the Supreme Court, looking for relief from — what, exactly? their own impatience?

Update, 11 February 2019. Attorneys for the Marquette County Road Commission have filed a Reply Brief. In a more sophisticated version of the veto argument rejected by the Sixth Circuit, they accuse the EPA of playing “a semantic shell game” around the issue of final agency action. They still use the word “veto” throughout the brief, and argue that EPA has made an important concession in its 28 January filing:

they now concede one crucial point that below they denied: the Corps required the Road Commission to submit a new Section 404 CWA permit application after the EPA vetoed the permit the State of Michigan stood ready to issue. [Here they cite a sentence from the EPA brief, which states:] “the Corps asked petitioner to submit a ‘new’ application.” That factual concession amounts to an implicit legal concession that, in regards to the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Section 404 CWA permit application process, the EPA’s work was consummated… Moreover, it recognizes that there were consequences to the Road Commission that flowed from that consummation of EPA’s work in regards to that vetoed state permit: now, the Road Commission had to take action in order to obtain a Section 404 CWA permit—it had to submit a new permit application to the Corps.

Who, exactly, is playing shell games? This argument appears to be little more than sophistry. When the EPA brief uses the word “new” at the indicated place (page 11), the brief is quoting the Marquette County Road Commission’s own petition. That is why the EPA places “new” inside quotation marks. EPA is, moreover, quoting Marquette County Road Commission in order to refute the assertion that this was anything but the continuation of an ongoing review process. To quote your opponent is not to concede his point.

The Reply Brief also cites the recent Weyerhaeuser decision over enforcement of the Endangered Species Act to argue that there is “a basic presumption of judicial review for any party suffering legal wrong because of agency action.” This would seem to create the burden of proving that the Road Commission suffered legal wrong — which would seem to bring us full circle: the Road Commission only suffered legal wrong if, in fact, the EPA’s objections constituted a veto.

Round and round we go. Now it’s up to the Roberts court to sort this out, or just turn it down. I still think the latter is the most likely outcome.

Update, 19 February 2019. A 13 February entry in the docket shows the case has been distributed for conference on the first of March. It is one of ten Sixth Circuit cases up for consideration.

You’ll find my other posts on MCRC v. EPA here

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