Kansas Couple Gets A Day In Court In Battle With EPA Tribunal

Citizens often find that cases filed in federal administrative tribunals are stacked against them.

Emporia Kansas grassland. Wikimedia.

Thomas and Amy Villegas filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas to obtain fair hearing after the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined them for removing debris and invasive weeds from land they own.

The Villegases bought a piece of undeveloped land that they planned to use for hunting and other outdoor recreation. When they began the process of removing the downed trees and invasive Phragmite weeds, a neighbor reported them to the EPA.

The EPA exercised the option of keeping its entire enforcement process within its own walls, according to the law firm, and under its own rules. In other words, the EPA brought the case before one of its own employees instead of a judge. This means, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation, that the EPA employee determines how to punish people. Any appeal of that decision goes to the agency’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), which is staffed with more EPA employees. 

The federal agency claimed that these activities discharged pollutants — namely dirt and other fill material — into protected waters, filed an administrative enforcement action against the Villegases, and took them before an EPA agency administrative law judge to seek a $300,000 fine.

The EPA and other federal agencies often resort to a court-like process, deriving high rates of victory because the accused usually settles rather than face fighting bureaucrats in a process stacked in favor of the government, according to PLF. 

“The Constitution guarantees a fair hearing before a neutral, life-tenured federal judge before the government may deprive citizens like the Villegases of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines,” said Damien Schiff, senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm.

“But the Villegases were denied that right when the EPA chose to prosecute them in an in-house tribunal before an unaccountable administrative law judge who works for the agency,” Schiff said.

Administrative law courts or tribunals only "bear superficial similarities to normal courts," said a release from the Pacific Legal Foundation, but "lack many of the protections for the rights of the accused that are guaranteed by the Constitution, especially the right of trial by jury."

Additionally, administrative law judges are not appointed by the president or confirmed by the Senate of the United States, as the Constitution’s appointments clause requires for officers who wield significant authority.

The case is Thomas Villegas, et al. v. Michael S. Regan, et al, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.
Since its founding in 1973, the Pacific Legal Foundation currently has active cases in 39 states and Washington D.C. It has won 15 out of 17 cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Martin Barillas is a journalist and author of Shaken Earth, available at Amazon.

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Kansas Law Lawsuit federal EPA freedom