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The Supreme Court opens a new term with a dispute over murky wetlands and Justice Jackson on the bench

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on board as its newest member, opens its nine-month term Monday by hearing a conservative challenge to the federal government’s authority to regulate wetlands under a landmark environmental protection law. .

The case marks the debut of Supreme Court oral argument for Jackson, the first black woman to serve on the court. Nominated by President Joe Biden, Jackson took office over the summer. The oral argument also marks the first time in history that four female judges will sit together on the bench.

Jackson replaced liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who retired in June. She is one of three liberals on the nine-judge bench who appear poised to continue her conservative trajectory in the new term.

The court has already agreed to hear major cases that could end consideration of race in college admissions and make it easier for Republicans to impose voting restrictions ahead of the 2024 presidential election. With a solid 6-3 conservative majority, it’s little Jackson is likely to be a key vote in many of the big cases.

For the first time since the covid pandemic hit Washington in March 2020, members of the public will be allowed into the courtroom for Monday’s case as the risk-averse court returns to proceedings somewhat. pre-pandemic, even if public access to the building remains. limited.

The justices are back in action after a tumultuous end to the court’s most recent term in which the conservative majority overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruled that he gave federal protection to abortion rights, leading some to question the court’s legitimacy.

The court’s conservative majority is skeptical of the federal agency’s broad claims of power, which could align with arguments made in Monday’s case. In the court’s term that ended in June, the justices made a major ruling that limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to address climate change by regulating carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

The same agency is in court right now, with the scope of the Clean Water Act, intended to protect water quality, now under scrutiny.

It also sees the return of Idaho couple Chantell and Mike Sackett to the Supreme Court after the justices ruled in their favor in a previous case in 2012. Both cases involve the same underlying dispute: the Sacketts’ effort to build a property on land it owns in Priest Lake, Idaho, parts of which the EPA has deemed a protected wetland, meaning the land is subject to federal jurisdiction and construction requires a permit.

The first case concerned whether the Sacketts could challenge an EPA enforcement order in court after they had filled the affected area with gravel and sand without obtaining a permit. The fight, which began in 2007, continued over whether the land was a wetland.

The Sacketts turned to the Supreme Court for a second time after the San Francisco-based U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in favor of the federal government in its determination that the area constituted a wetland

The law on how to define a wetland, of key interest to property developers and other business interests, has long been unclear and was not resolved when the Supreme Court in 2006 decided an earlier case on the issue. Four justices then said the Clean Water Act covered land with a “continuous surface connection” to a waterway, but there was no clear majority. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote in the 5-4 ruling, devised his own test, which said the law granted jurisdiction over wetlands with a “significant nexus” to a waterway. The new case gives the court a chance to review the previous ruling, and some observers believe the majority can adopt the stricter test proposed by the four justices in 2006.

Successive presidential administrations have tried to bring clarity to the law, with Democrats generally favoring more federal power and Republicans, backed by business interests, saying the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction should be limited.

The Biden administration is currently finalizing a new federal rule. In court documents, Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the administration, said Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test is preferable because it “covers adjacent wetlands that significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of traditional navigable waters.” of the nation”.

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