Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Will Hear Challenge to WOTUS Rule

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016
Peggy Kirk Hall, Asst. Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law

Update:  On April 21, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for en banc (full court) review of this decision made by agricultural groups and several states.

In a case successfully argued by Ohio’s Solicitor Eric Murphy, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati has determined that it has jurisdiction to hear challenges to the Clean Water Rule (WOTUS Rule) proposed by the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers.  The Rule expands the geographic extent of the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) that are subject to the Clean Water Act. 

A brief background

When the agencies published the final WOTUS Rule last summer, dozens of parties and 31 states, including Ohio, filed challenges in nine federal district courts and eight federal courts of appeal.  The filings raised an immediate uncertainty about whether federal district courts or federal courts of appeal have jurisdiction to review the Rule.  Despite this uncertainty, the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota issued a temporary injunction that prevented the Rule’s application in the 13 states that were involved in that district’s litigation.  Other district courts in West Virginia and Georgia declined to issue injunctions and instead ruled that they did not have jurisdiction to review the Rule.  A federal panel consolidated the cases filed before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the challenge by the State of Ohio.  The Sixth Circuit first issued a nationwide stay of the WOTUS Rule last October before turning to the jurisdictional challenges raised by the EPA and Army Corps.

The Sixth Circuit’s fractured opinion

The decision on jurisdiction issued by the Sixth Circuit’s three judge panel is not harmonious.  Judge McKeague wrote the court’s opinion and based jurisdiction on two of seven provisions in the Clean Water Act that grant appellate court jurisdiction to review EPA actions:  subsection 1369 (b)(1)(E) for actions “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation” under certain sections of the Act and subsection 1369(b)(1)(F), for actions issuing or denying National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.  Judge McKeague relies on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that interprets the “other limitations” language in 1369 (b)(1)(E) to include limitations that “indirectly” produce limitations on point source operators and permit issuing authorities.  He also cites the Sixth Circuit’s earlier decision in National Cotton Council v. U.S. EPA to conclude that agency actions “issuing or denying” an NPDES permit under 1369(b)(1)(F) include actions creating “regulations governing the issues of permits” and “rules that regulate NPDES permitting procedures,” such as the WOTUS Rule.

A concurring opinion written by Judge Griffin agrees only with the requirement to follow the Sixth Circuit’s previous decision in National Cotton Council.  Judge Griffin clarifies that he is bound by but does not agree with the court’s reasoning in that case, and would not otherwise accept jurisdiction under subsections 1369(b)(1)(E) or (F).  In a dissenting opinion, Judge Keith agrees with the concurring opinion that neither subsection 1369(b)(1)(E) or (F) grants an appeals court jurisdiction in regards to the WOTUS Rule.  Judge Keith also argues that Judge McKeague mistakenly relies upon and overly broadens the National Cotton Council decision, which he believes does not apply to the WOTUS Rule.


Despite the disagreements between the Sixth Circuit Court judges, the decision means that the nationwide stay of the WOTUS Rule remains in effect and the court will proceed to hear the circuit’s consolidated cases that challenge the WOTUS Rule.  The court’s decision on jurisdiction applies only to the states within the Sixth Circuit—Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.  Given the range of reasoning in the Sixth Circuit’s decision, other federal courts could reach differing decisions on the question of which court has jurisdiction over the cases.  If so, we can expect a request for the United States Supreme Court to review the jurisdictional issue.  As we expected, the WOTUS Rule challenges will be with us for quite some time. 

Read the Sixth Circuit’s opinion for In re: U.S. Dep’t of Defense & U.S. Envtl. Protection Agency Final Rule: Clean Water Rule at  

Add new comment