Tull v. United States

481 U. S. 412

April 28, 1987

A construction company dumped some waste on federally protected wetlands, in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA allows for steep fines to be imposed on violators, and the United States accordingly sought a ghastly penalty against Tull of $22 million. Tull argued that the Seventh Amendment entitled him to a jury trial, but he was overruled and a District Court found him guilty. It imposed the marginally less horrid fine of $325,000.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court ruled that a jury trial was required when monetary damages were sought under the CWA. Brennan explained that the Seventh Amendment’s touchstone was whether the remedy sought was legal or equitable in nature. In view of the absurd and clearly punitive fines which were both sought and assessed, the Court held that such a remedy could not possibly be considered equitable. Indeed, the very structure of the CWA seemed to presuppose that the fines were not to be deemed equitable in nature. Nonetheless, on the strength of historical practice, the Court also held that a jury would not be allowed to determine the amount of the fine.

Scalia dissented from this last holding, and was joined by Stevens. He thought that the jury rather than the judge should more appropriately determine the fine if the amount was not specifically fixed by the legislation itself. “I doubt the Founding Fathers would be upset,” he concluded wryly. I would join Scalia’s opinion. More than that though, this case demonstrates why I hate legislation like the Clean Water Act. Charging a construction company $22 million for polluting some wetlands is the most disgusting sort of brutish government bullying. Congress needs to quit passing broad pieces of legislation that give federal prosecutors so much dangerous power to destroy ordinary people’s lives.

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