Justices limit courts' role in forcing agencies to act

Ruling stops effort to force Bureau of Land Management to move more aggresively to protect western lands from off-road vehicles.

The Supreme Court Monday blocked a lawsuit that accused the federal government of not doing enough to protect undeveloped Western land from off-road vehicles, the Associated Press reported.

In the case, Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the court said that environmental groups cannot use courts to force the federal Bureau of Land Management to more aggressively safeguard about 2 million acres of potential wilderness in Utah.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said Congress never envisioned "pervasive oversight by federal courts over the manner and pace of agency compliance."

The Supreme Court had been asked to clarify when a federal agency can be sued for failing to follow a congressional mandate. The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the department could be sued for allowing damage to the lands. Justices reversed that decision.

The case involved the 1946 Federal Administrative Procedure Act, which says federal courts can compel agencies to act under certain circumstances. A federal district court determined that the law was limited to final agency decisions and "mandatory, nondiscretionary activities" -- not ongoing processes like monitoring land use. A panel of judges on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that judgment.

During oral argument on the case, several justices indicated they were likely to overturn the appeals court's ruling. "I'm not willing to accept your proposition that it's the role of the courts to make sure agencies toe the line," Scalia told Paul Smith, a lawyer for the group who filed the suit against the BLM. "That's the president's role." Tom Shoop contributed to this report.

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