This story was originally published by the WND News Center.
A Colorado couple fined by the EPA for getting rid of invasive weeds on their own property is challenging the decision – because the agency proposed the fine which was then affirmed by one of its own employees.
The case cites the right to have an adjudication by a neutral court in such disputes – not merely a rubber stamp by an employee.
The lawsuit was filed by Thomas and Amy Villegas after the EPA wanted to fine them $300,000 for removing debris and weeds from their own land.
The Pacific Legal Foundation explained the Villegases bought a piece of undeveloped land in Nebraska that they planned to use for hunting and other outdoor recreation.
"When they began the process of removing the downed trees and invasive Phragmites weeds, a neighbor reported them to the EPA. The EPA claimed that these activities discharged pollutants — namely dirt and other fill material — into protected waters, filed an administrative enforcement action against the Villegases, and hauled them in front of an agency administrative law judge to seek a $300,000 fine," the legal organization explained.
"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. "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."
The couple is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under Article III of the Constitution.
It was Susan Biro, an EPA employee who was working as an administrative law judge even though she never was appointed as an ALJ under the Appointments Clause, who ruled against the couple.
Their land is undeveloped.
Between January 2016 and December 2020, the Villegases set about improving the property by removing dead trees, which posed a fire hazard, and invasive Phragmites weeds, which are classified in the state as noxious weeds that destroy wetlands.
The property today is safer from fire and more welcoming to wildlife, the filing said.
Then the EPA claimed they placed "dirt, spoil, rock, culverts, trees, and sand into waters of the United States."
But, the complaint explains, the EPA's "administrative adjudicatory scheme" puts the Villegases "before an individual who was never appointed as an ALJ consistent with the Constitution, subjects them to her jurisdiction, and compels them to please their case to her and obey her orders."