Battle over an acre of farmland may be headed to U.S. Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on October 31st, 2016

How do you distinguish a wetland from an ordinary piece of farmland?

That question has been the subject of protracted federal agency and court proceedings for eight years. Now it could be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

South Dakota farmers Arlen and Cindy Foster have petitioned the Supreme Court to review an April ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which held that the U.S. Department of Agriculture appropriately designated a piece of the couples’ farmland to be a wetland.

While it’s hard to say whether the Supreme Court will accept the case, the justices are more likely to weigh in when there is a split among the federal courts of appeals, as there is on this issue. 

This appeal has implications for Iowa, which is within the jurisdiction of the Eighth Circuit, and which has similar wetland characteristics as South Dakota and several other Midwest states in what’s known as the Prairie Pothole Region.

Congress included a “Swampbuster” provision in the 1985 Farm Bill to protect wetlands from being converted to cropland. The law discourages wetlands destruction by denying federal farm assistance, such as subsidized crop insurance.

Although this case involves less than an acre of farm ground, it has larger implications for farmers throughout the Midwest who may be denied federal assistance by the Swampbuster provision.

The question for farmers like the Fosters is just how the USDA defines a wetland. In their case, the agency – following its administrative rules and procedures – did that by comparing the disputed piece of their ground to a wetland more than 30 miles away.

A larger question, however, is whether the federal courts should defer to the USDA’s interpretation of its own rules, as federal appeals courts for the Eighth and the Sixth Circuits Court have done. Or should the courts not defer to the USDA, as the Fifth Circuit has held?

As evidence of national interest, the Fosters’ petition is supported by amicus curiae briefs filed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Cato Institute and the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence on behalf of itself and two small-business groups.

Here’s how the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence summarized the question before the Court: “Does a civil service employee have the power to bind the judicial branch of government to the employee’s understanding of the meaning and application of agency rules and guidelines?”

To read the Fosters’ petition and the supporting briefs, see the case page on SCOTUSBlog.com.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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