Thomas Villegas argues that the ability of a federal agency to act as judge, jury, and executioner, all within its own confines and according to its self-written regulations, is a violation of the Constitution. Accused of environmental violations and facing substantial fines, Villegas is demanding a trial by a jury of his peers instead of submitting to an in-house agency trial. He believes that the administrative state operates a rigged system that denies landowners and private business owners the opportunity to be judged by impartial individuals.
Villegas' federal lawsuit carries significant implications. If successful, it could establish a precedent that protects landowners and private business owners from being accused, judged, and sentenced by the same unelected government employees.
The Case Unfolds
In 2015, Thomas and Amy Villegas purchased 80 acres of undeveloped land in rural Lincoln County, Nebraska, for recreational and hunting purposes. The property consisted of farmland, pasture, and river bottoms with streams and ponds adjacent to the Platte River. Villegas noticed a large number of decaying trees and an invasive weed called phragmites, which posed a threat to wetlands, native vegetation, and habitat. In 2017, Villegas began a multi-year process to remove the dead trees and eradicate the phragmites by carving a road into his property and using equipment.
Unbeknownst to Villegas, a neighboring property owner reported his restoration efforts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May 2021. The complaint triggered EPA's involvement, leading to phone calls and on-site inspections in 2021 and 2022. Eventually, EPA imposed a $300,000 fine on Villegas, accusing him of depositing various materials into the water, specifically targeting 5.7 acres of wetlands and 210 feet of Platte River tributaries.
Villegas, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), has consistently maintained his innocence, emphasizing that he was merely removing fire hazards and invasive species on his own land. However, the EPA's complaint against Villegas was subjected to in-house judgment, with EPA Chief Administrative Law Judge Susan Biro presiding. Essentially, EPA claimed the power to assess Villegas' alleged violation, impose fines, and have its own member judge its actions.
Even if Villegas were to successfully defend himself before the EPA judge, the case could be taken to the EPA Appeals Board within the agency, starting the process anew. This means that EPA and other government agencies have multiple opportunities to prosecute individuals for the same alleged offense.
Villegas' Lawsuit and its Significance
In April 2023, Villegas filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, challenging the constitutionality of the in-house adjudication process employed by the EPA. Represented by the PLF, Villegas seeks a jury trial and argues that the current system violates the Constitution.
Michael Poon, an attorney with the PLF, believes that Villegas' case has broad implications. He asserts that the practice of government agencies serving as prosecutor, judge, and jury is not what the country's founders intended. Poon argues that if agencies had to convince independent juries and judges of their complaints against private citizens, they would think twice before levying fines.
The PLF points out that administrative adjudication overwhelmingly favors the agencies. Former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright previously highlighted the agency's perfect win rate in cases where the administrative law judge ruled in favor of the FTC staff. This pattern raises concerns about a biased and unhealthy institutional process.
Villegas and his legal team hope that their lawsuit will protect individuals facing similar circumstances and prompt a reevaluation of the practices employed by administrative agencies. Villegas asserts his innocence and refuses to live in fear, stating that real Americans should not be afraid of their own government.
The outcome of Villegas' lawsuit could potentially redefine the balance of power between government agencies and private citizens, safeguarding constitutional rights and ensuring fairness and accountability in administrative adjudication.