The recent decision on federal health care legislation is not
the only surprise coming from the United States Supreme Court
recently. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Southern
Union Company vs. USA, ___ S.Ct. ___, 2012 WL 2344465 (June
21, 2012), overturned an $18 million fine entered in a criminal
enforcement case for alleged hazardous waste violations lodged
against a pipeline operator under the Federal Resource Conservation
and Recovery Act (RCRA).
In an interesting alignment of Justices (Justice Sotomayor wrote
the opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts as well as
Justices Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg and Kagan), the Court ruled the
Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial applies to all facts that
apply to the imposition of a fine, as well as to imprisonment. In
particular, the Court ruled that the "beyond a reasonable
doubt" standard applies to all facts that are necessary
predicates to the imposition of fines in a criminal case.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court applied the standard
established in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, to
the imposition of fines, as well as jail time, in criminal cases.
In Apprendi, the Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment
requires that any fact that increases the maximum punishment must
be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. In a case of first
impression, the Court in Southern Union ruled that the
Apprendi doctrine applies to the imposition of fines, and
not just to the imposition of jail time, in this RCRA criminal
In Southern Union, the trial court jury found that the
company's hazardous waste storage practices violated RCRA, but
the judge, not the jury, imposed the $18 million fine based upon a
judicial finding that the company was in violation of RCRA for 762
days. These facts about the alleged continuing nature of the
violation, as well as the fact of violation, are all facts that are
the necessary predicates for the imposition of the fine. According
to the Court in Southern Union, all of these facts must be
found by a jury, and not a judge in a criminal prosecution under
RCRA to preserve the Sixth Amendment right to a jury in criminal
While this case was decided under narrow facts arising under the
federal hazardous waste laws, the impacts of this decision could be
very significant. These impacts could include the following:
A higher burden of proof for the federal (and state) government
when alleging the total amount of fines that are appropriate in
criminal enforcement cases.
While this case was decided under RCRA, it is reasonable to
assume that the case will have far-reaching impact in the area of
criminal enforcement under all of the major federal as well as
state environmental laws including, but not limited to, the Clean
Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act,
It could change the way state and federal agencies seek to
calculate fines in criminal cases, making it much more difficult to
seek significant fines in such cases.
It will force the government to grapple with proving the exact
number of days that environmental violations continued under a very
exacting "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard, rather
than the broader discretion previously exercised by trial court
judges, in making the amount of fine determinations in such
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