Rapanos v. United States

Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006), was a United States Supreme Court case challenging federal jurisdiction to regulate isolated wetlands under the Clean Water Act. It was the first major environmental case heard by the newly appointed Chief Justice, John Roberts and Associate Justice, Samuel Alito. The Supreme Court heard the case on February 21, 2006 and issued a decision on June 19, 2006.

Rapanos v. United States
Argued February 21, 2006
Decided June 19, 2006
Full case nameJohn A. Rapanos, et ux., et al., Petitioners v. United States; June Carabell, et al., Petitioners v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, et al.
Docket no.04-1034
Citations547 U.S. 715 (more)
126 S. Ct. 2208; 165 L. Ed. 2d 159; 2006 U.S. LEXIS 4887; 74 U.S.L.W. 4365; 62 ERC (BNA) 1481; 19 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 275
Case history
PriorUnited States v. Rapanos, 895 F. Supp. 165 (E.D. Mich. 1995); reversed and remanded, 115 F.3d 367 (6th Cir. 1997); conviction affirmed, remanded for resentencing, 235 F.3d 256 (6th Cir. 2000); vacated, Rapanos v. United States, 533 U.S. 913 (2001); remanded, United States v. Rapanos, 16 F. App'x 345 (6th Cir. 2001); conviction set aside, 190 F. Supp. 2d 1011 (E.D. Mich. 2002); reversed, United States v. Rapanos, 339 F.3d 447 (6th Cir. 2003); conviction affirmed, 376 F.3d 629 (6th Cir. 2004); cert. granted, 546 U.S. 932 (2005).

Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 257 F. Supp. 2d 917 (E.D. Mich. 2003), affirmed, 391 F.3d 704 (6th Cir. 2004); cert. granted, 546 U.S. 932 (2005).
Wetlands without a hydrological or ecological connection to other navigable waters do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · David Souter
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Case opinions
PluralityScalia, joined by Roberts, Thomas, Alito
DissentStevens, joined by Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Laws applied
Clean Water Act

While five justices agreed to void rulings against the defendants, who were prosecuted for impacting a wetland incidental to commercial development, the court was split over further details, with the four more conservative justices arguing in a plurality opinion for a more restrictive reading of the term "navigable waters" than the four more liberal justices. Justice Anthony Kennedy did not fully join either position. The case was remanded to the lower court.

Ultimately, Rapanos agreed to a nearly $1,000,000 settlement with the EPA without admitting to any wrongdoing.


The case involves developers John A. Rapanos (Midland, Michigan) and June Carabell whose separate projects were stopped because of the environmental regulations that make up the Clean Water Act.

In the late 1980s, Rapanos filled 22 acres (8.9 ha) of wetland that he owned with sand, in preparation for the construction of a mall, without filing for a permit.[1] He argued that the land was not a wetland and that he was not breaking the law, but his own consultant and state employees disagreed. Rapanos claimed that his land was up to 20 miles (32 km) from any navigable waterways.[2] However, the term "navigable waterway" has been broadly interpreted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to include areas connected to or linked to waters via tributaries or other similar means.

After a mistrial, the jury returned two felony guilty verdicts for filling wetlands in Rapanos' second trial. In August 1995, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Paul Zatkoff granted Rapanos' request for a new trial,[3] but, in May 1997, Sixth Circuit Judge Pierce Lively, joined by Judge Karen Nelson Moore, reversed and remanded for sentencing, over the dissent of Judge David Aldrich Nelson.[4] After sentencing, Circuit Chief Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr., joined by Judges Alan Eugene Norris and Karl Spillman Forester remanded for resentencing in December 2000.[5] In February 2002, Judge Zatkoff set aside Rapanos' conviction again,[6] and in September 2003 Circuit Judge Martin, joined by Judges Norris and John M. Rogers, again reinstated the conviction.[7] In the end, Rapanos was forced to serve three years of probation and pay $5,000 in fines.[8]

In July 2004, Judge Danny C. Reeves, joined by Circuit Judges Eugene Edward Siler Jr. and Julia Smith Gibbons, affirmed the district court's civil judgment against Rapanos.[9] Rapanos appealed the civil case against him, which included millions of dollars of fines, to the Supreme Court.[2]

Carabell, who was involved in the associated case Carabell v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, sought a permit to build condominiums on 19 acres (77,000 m2) of wetlands, but his request was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers. Carabell took the issue to the courts by arguing that the federal government did not have jurisdiction. In September 2004, Judge William Stafford, joined by Circuit Judges Alice M. Batchelder and Gibbons, affirmed the district courts delivery of summary judgment against June Carabell.[10] Carabell then appealed to the Supreme Court.[2]

In United States v. Riverside Bayview the unanimous Court had found that wetlands abutting Lake St. Clair were included in the Corps' jurisdiction over waters of the United States.[11] In 2001, a divided Court found that the migratory bird rule could not reach isolated ponds in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers (SWANCC).[12] All waters with a "significant nexus" to "navigable waters" are covered under the CWA; however, the words "significant nexus" remains open to judicial interpretation and considerable controversy. Some regulations included water features such as intermittent streams, playa lakes, prairie potholes, sloughs and wetlands as "waters of the United States".[13]

The case was argued on the same day as S. D. Warren Co. v. Maine Board of Environmental Protection with the Pacific Legal Foundation arguing for Rapanos and United States Solicitor General Paul Clement arguing for the Government.


The justices were unable to produce a majority decision.

Four justices voted to affirm. Four justices voted to vacate, to strike down the Corps interpretation of the CWA, and to remand under a new "continuous surface water connection" standard. Justice Kennedy also voted to vacate and remand but under the different, "significant nexus," standard. The Court voted 4-1-4, with three justices making oral readings at the opinion announcement, and five printed opinions spanning over 100 pages. Both cases were remanded "for further proceedings."

Justice Scalia's plurality opinion

Justice Antonin Scalia authored a plurality opinion, in which he was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Scalia began his analysis by arguing that the Corps "exercises the discretion of an enlightened despot" and quoted factors it used when choosing to exercise jurisdiction, such as "aesthetics" and "in general, the needs and welfare of the people."[14] He then criticized the cost associated with exercising jurisdiction, noting that the average applicant spends 788 days and $271,596 on an application and that "for backfilling his own wet fields," Rapanos faced 63 months in prison.[15] Justice Scalia argued the "immense expansion of federal regulation" over "swampy lands" would give the Corps jurisdiction over "half of Alaska and an area the size of California in the lower 48 States."[16]

Justice Scalia then detailed the Clean Water Act's history, from the litigation forcing the Corps to broaden its jurisdiction beyond traditional navigable waters to its adoption of the Migratory Bird Rule after Riverside Bayview to SWANCC's rejection of that rule and calls for new regulations. Justice Scalia then noted that the Corps has still not amended its published regulations, and he emphasized a Government Accountability Office investigation finding disparate standards across different Corps district offices.[17] Justice Scalia ultimately concluded that Waters of the United States should include only relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water because, according to him, that was the definition of “the waters” in Webster's Dictionary.[18] Justice Scalia also rejected Justice Anthony Kennedy's assertion that the same dictionary definition lists floods as an alternative usage, as was "strange to suppose that Congress had waxed Shakespearean." Therefore, he suggested the Corps regulations of intermittent streams were "useful oxymora."

The plurality opinion stated that the Clean Water Act confers federal jurisdiction over non-navigable waters only if the waters exhibit a relatively permanent flow, such as a river, lake, or stream. In addition, a wetland falls within the Corps' jurisdiction only if there is a continuous surface water connection between it and a relatively permanent waterbody, and it is difficult to determine where the waterbody ends and the wetland begins. In addition to his textualist arguments, he also argued that his conclusions conformed with basic principles of federalism. Quoting the CWA's policy to "protect the primary responsibilities and rights of the States," he argued the Corps' inferred jurisdiction failed the clear statement rule. Furthermore, because its interpretation "stretches the outer limits of Congres's commerce power," he justified his selective interpretation under constitutional avoidance.[14] Justice Scalia spent the rest of his opinion attacking the other justices' arguments. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the plurality opinion upset three decades of administrative and congressional practice, but Justice Scalia rejected that argument as "a curious appeal to entrenched Executive error" and also characterized Justice Kennedy's significant nexus test as a "gimmick" to devise "his new statute all on his own" and his reasoning is "turtles all the way down."[16]

Chief Justice Roberts' concurring opinion

Chief Justice Roberts wrote separately to note that it was "unfortunate" that the Court failed to reach a majority. Additionally, he criticized the Corps for refusing to publish guidance on the scope of its power, even after being warned to do so in SWANCC.

Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion

Justice Kennedy wrote an opinion concurring with the judgment of the court.[fn 1]

While he agreed that the cases should be vacated and remanded, he believed that a wetland or non-navigable waterbody falls within the scope of the Clean Water Act's jurisdiction if it bears a "significant nexus" to a traditional navigable waterway. Using some of the Court's language in SWANCC, Justice Kennedy argued the CWA defines navigable waters as a water or wetland that possesses a significant nexus to waters that are navigable in fact.[21] He argued that a nexus exists where the wetland or waterbody, either by itself or in combination with other similar sites, significantly affects the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the downstream navigable waterway.[22]

Justice Kennedy spent the rest of his concurring opinion explaining why the eight other justices were wrong. He characterized Justice Scalia's opinion as "inconsistent with the Act's text, structure, and purpose" and noted that what Justice Scalia called "wet fields" were, in fact, sensitive habitats that provide essential ecosystem services.[23] He also criticized Justice Scalia's selective reliance on only part of the dictionary definition of "waters." Justice Kennedy noted that even the Los Angeles River might fail Scalia's test.[24] Justice Kennedy also attacked, "as an empirical matter," Justice Scalia's assertion that silt cannot wash downstream.[25] Likewise, Justice Kennedy criticized Justice Stevens' dissenting opinion, noting that "while the plurality reads nonexistent requirements into the Act, the dissent reads a central requirement out." Referring to the inconsistencies found by the GAO investigation, Justice Kennedy wrote he could not share Justice Stevens' trust in the Corps' reasonableness.[26]

Justice Stevens' dissenting opinion

Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion, in which he was joined by Justice David Souter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Stevens called the Corps' asserted jurisdiction "a quintessential example of the Executive's reasonable interpretation" and argued that Riverside Bayview already "squarely controls" the validity of the regulations. After reviewing in detail the criminal allegations against John Rapanos, Justice Stevens emphasized that the SWANCC Court limited Corps jurisdiction over only truly isolated waters, and Congress deliberately acquiesced to Corps regulation when it appropriated funds for the National Wetlands Inventory.[27] Justice Stevens also criticized Justice Scalia's " dramatic departure" from Riverside Bayview in a "creative opinion" that "is utterly unpersuasive." Justice Stevens derided Justice Scalia's new limit on jurisdiction to relatively permanent bodies of water as an "arbitrary distinction." Additionally, Justice Stevens criticized Justice Scalia for "cit[ing] a dictionary for a proposition it does not contain." Rather, Justice Stevens argued that "common sense and common usage" treat intermittent streams as streams.[28] Furthermore, Justice Stevens concluded that "the very existence of words like 'alluvium' and 'silt' in our language" disproved Justice Scalia's assertion that material does not normally wash downstream.[29]

Justice Stevens noted that he agreed with Justice Kennedy's description of the cases and Justice Kennedy's critique of Justice Scalia's plurality opinion. However, Justice Stevens stated he was "skeptical" that there actually were any adjacent wetlands that would not meet Kennedy's significant nexus test. Nevertheless, Justice Stevens clarified that because all four dissenters adopted the broadest jurisdictional test, they would also find Corps jurisdiction in any case that meets either Justice Scalia's or Justice Kennedy's test. As such, Justice Stevens assumed Justice Kennedy's "approach will be controlling in most cases."[30]

Justice Breyer's dissenting opinion

Justice Breyer wrote a separate dissenting to note that he believed that Corps CWA authority extended to the very limits of the interstate commerce power. Because he believed that agency expertise would produce better definitions than judicial review, he called on the Corps to write new regulations "speedily."

Subsequent developments

Because no single opinion garnered a majority of the votes, it is unclear which opinion sets forth the controlling test for wetlands jurisdiction. Chief Justice Roberts observed that the lower courts would likely look to Marks v. United States[19] to guide them in applying the competing Rapanos standards. Marks provides, “When a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.”[19] Justice Stevens, writing the principal Rapanos dissent, suggested that lowers courts could use either the plurality's or Justice Kennedy's test, as both tests would command the support of at least five justices.”[30]

To date, seven federal appellate courts have been presented with the issue of which Rapanos jurisdictional test is controlling. The Fifth Circuit in United States v. Lucas[31] and the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Cundiff[32] ultimately avoided the question, as the courts determined that the evidence presented was adequate to support federal jurisdiction under either standard. The Seventh Circuit in United States v. Gerke Excavating, Inc.,[33] the Ninth Circuit in Northern California River Watch v. City of Healdsburg,[34] and the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Robison[35] held that Justice Kennedy's opinion (the "significant nexus" test) is controlling. The First Circuit in United States v. Johnson[36] and the Eighth Circuit in United States v. Bailey[37] held that jurisdiction may be established under either Rapanos test. One district court has held that the Rapanos plurality opinion (the "continuous surface water connection" test) is controlling.[38]

As Chief Justice Roberts anticipated, the courts adopting the Kennedy standard have done so by invoking Marks. Under Marks, a split decision's binding legal rule is found in the opinion taken by the concurring justices on the narrowest grounds, which has been interpreted as meaning the opinion that is the "logical subset" of the other opinions in the case.[39] As applied to Rapanos, Marks dictates that if either the plurality or the Kennedy test is a subset of the other, that test is controlling. The appellate courts that have followed the Kennedy test have concluded that it is a logical subset of the Rapanos plurality test and therefore binding. The appellate courts that have adopted both Rapanos tests(the First and Eighth Circuits) have concluded that the Marks rule does not apply to Rapanos and that both tests are equally valid. The Supreme Court has denied petitions for writ of certiorari in six of the seven circuit court cases addressing the Rapanos split-decision question. (The Bailey appellant did not file a petition.) It is therefore unlikely that the Supreme Court will clarify this question in the near future.

WOTUS rule

Citing the confusion created by Rapanos, on June 29, 2015, the Corps and EPA promulgated a new 75-page regulation attempting to clarify the scope of waters of the United States, to take effect on August 28.[40] Thirteen states sued, and on August 27, U.S. Chief District Judge Ralph R. Erickson issue an injunction blocking the regulation in those states.[41] In separate litigation, on October 9, a divided federal appeals court stayed the rule's application nationwide.[42]

See also


  1. In plurality opinions, a majority of Justices agree upon the proper disposition of the case, but "no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five justices."[19] When analyzing a plurality opinion, "the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds...."[20]


  1. Barringer, Felicity (18 May 2004). "Michigan Landowner Who Filled Wetlands Faces Prison". The New York Times. p. A20. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
  2. Greenhouse, Linda (12 October 2005). "Supreme Court Takes Up 2 Cases Challenging Powers of U.S. Regulators to Protect Wetlands". The New York Times. p. A14. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
  3. United States v. Rapanos, 895 F. Supp. 165 (E.D. Mich. 1995).
  4. United States v. Rapanos, 115 F.3d 367 (6th Cir. 1997).
  5. United States v. Rapanos, 235 F.3d 256 (6th Cir. 2000).
  6. United States v. Rapanos, 190 F. Supp. 2d 1011 (E.D. Mich. 2002).
  7. United States v. Rapanos, 339 F.3d 447 (6th Cir. 2003).
  8. Shepardson, David (2005-03-16). "Man avoids prison in land feud". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on 2012-09-03. Retrieved 2006-06-19.
  9. United States v. Rapanos, 376 F.3d 629 (6th Cir. 2004).
  10. Carabell v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, 391 F.3d 704 (6th Cir. 2004).
  11. United States v. Riverside Bayview, 474 U.S. 121 (1985).
  12. Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001).
  13. Code of Federal Regulations, 33 CFR Part 328 Archived March 1, 2012, at the Wayback Machine; 40 CFR 122.2 Archived February 27, 2009, at the Wayback Machine;40 CFR 230.3(s). Archived February 27, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  14. Matthew A. Macdonald, Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, 31 Harv. Envir. L. Rev. 321, 324 (2007).
  15. Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715, 7211 (plurality opinion) (citing David Sunding and Davis Zilberman, The Economics of Environmental Regulation by Licensing: An Assessment of Recent Changes to the Wetland Permitting Process, 42 Nat. Resources J. 59, 74-76 (2002)).
  16. James Murphy, Muddying the Waters of the Clean Water Act: Rapanos v. United States and the Future of America's Water Resources. Archived January 15, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  17. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 725 (plurality opinion) (citing US General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulating Affairs, Committee on Government Reform, House of Representatives, Waters and Wetlands: Corps of Engineers Needs to Evaluate Its District Office Practices in Determining Jurisdiction Archived September 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, GAO-04-297, pp. 20-22 (Feb. 2004)).
  18. Courtney Covington, Rapanos v. United States: Evaluating the Efficacy of Textualism in Interpreting Environmental Laws, 34 Ecology L.Q. 801, 811 (2007).
  19. Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977).
  20. Marks, 430 U.S. at 193 (internal quotations and citations omitted).
  21. The Supreme Court, 2005 Term — Leading Cases: Federal Jurisdiction over Navigable Waters, 120 Harv. L. Rev. 351, 351 (2006). Archived at the Wayback Machine (archived 16 January 2017)
  22. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act Jurisdiction Following the U.S. Supreme Court's Decision in Rapanos v. United States & Carabell v. United States, December 2, 2008. Archived October 26, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  23. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 777 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment) (citing OTA 43, 48-52; R. Tiner, In Search of Swampland: A Wetland Sourcebook and Field Guide 93-95 (2d ed. 2005); Whitmire & Hamilton, Rapid Removal of Nitrate and Sulfate in Freshwater Wetland Sediments, 34 J. Env. Quality 2062 (2005)).
  24. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 769-70 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment) (citing B. Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth 1-2 (1999); Martinez, City of Angels' Signature River Tapped for Rebirth, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 10, 2005, section 1, p. 8; County of Los Angeles Dept. of Public Works, Water Resources Division: 2002-2003 Hydrologic Report, Runoff, Daily Discharge, F377-R BOUQUET CANYON CREEK at Urbandale Avenue 11107860 Bouquet Creek Near Saugus, CA).
  25. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 775 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment) (citing Fountain, Unloved, But Not Unbuilt, N.Y. Times, June 5, 2005, section 4, p. 3, col. 1; DePalma, Rebuilding a River Upstate, For the Love of a Tiny Mussel, N.Y. Times, Apr. 26, 2004, section B, p. 1, col. 2; MacDougall, Damage Can Be Irreversible, Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1987, pt. 1, p. 10, col. 4; U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Wetlands: Their Use and Regulation Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, OTA-O-206, pp. 43, 48-52 (Mar. 1984)).
  26. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 782 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment); c.f. Leibowitz & Nadeau, Isolated Wetlands: State-of-the-Science and Future Directions, 23 Wetlands 663, 669 (2003) (noting that "'isolated' is generally a matter of degree").
  27. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 801, n. 11 (Stevens, J., dissenting) (citing 4 Legislative History of the Clean Water Act of 1977 (Committee Print compiled for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works by the Library of Congress), Ser. No. 95-14, p. 903, 947 (1978) (discussing Senator Lloyd Bentsen's failed amendment to limit Corps’ jurisdiction over "isolated marshes")).
  28. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 801 (Stevens, J., dissenting) (citing U. S. Dept. of Interior, U. S. Geological Survey, Topographic Map Symbols 3 (2005)).
  29. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 807 (Stevens, J., dissenting) (citing Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Wetlands: Their Use and Regulation Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, OTA-206, p. 48 (Mar. 1984)); See also, e.g., Erman & Hawthorne, The Quantitative Importance of an Intermittent Stream in the Spawning of Rainbow Trout, 105 Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 675-681 (1976).
  30. Rapanos, 547 U.S. at 810 n.14 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  31. United States v. Lucas, 516 F.3d 316 (5th Cir. 2008).
  32. United States v. Cundiff, 555 F.3d 200 (6th Cir. 2009).
  33. United States v. Gerke Excavating, Inc., 464 F.3d 723 (7th Cir. 2006).
  34. Northern California River Watch v. City of Healdsburg, 496 F.3d 993 (9th Cir. 2007).
  35. United States v. Robison, 521 F.3d 1319 (11th Cir. 2008).
  36. United States v. Johnson, 467 F.3d 56 (1st Cir. 2006).
  37. United States v. Bailey, 571 F.3d 791 (8th Cir. 2009).
  38. United States v. Chevron Pipe Line Co., 437 F. Supp. 2d 605, 613 (N.D. Tex. 2006).
  39. See Johnson, 467 F.3d at 63-64 (citing King v. Palmer, 950 F.2d 771, 781 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (en banc)).
  40. 80 Fed. Reg. 37054 (June 29, 2015).
  41. Gershman, Jacob (28 August 2015). "After Court Defeat, EPA Presses Forward With Water Rule in Some States". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 October 2015.
  42. Gershman, Jacob (9 October 2015). "Appeals Court Blocks EPA Water Rule Nationwide". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 October 2015.
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