Hovercrafts & Uranium: Oral Argument Roundup for November 5, 2018

On Monday, November 5, 2018, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases: Sturgeon v. Frost and Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren.

Sturgeon v. Frost

In Sturgeon, the Court faced the question of whether the National Park Service (NPS) can prohibit the use of hovercrafts on public waterways. John Sturgeon, an Alaskan moose hunter, has been fighting the NPS for years, filing lawsuits and appeals seeking to gain permission to operate his hovercraft over the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley National Preserve conservation unit. Alaska says he can; the NPS says he can’t. The case hinges on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which says Alaskan Native and private land are not subject to federal “regulations applicable solely to public lands.” Specifically, the question is the meaning in this provision of “public lands.”

At oral argument, Sturgeon’s lawyer, Matthew T. Findley, argued that the law exempted a waterway such as the Nation River from the regulatory control of the NPS. Justice Alito said he “burned up an awful lot of gray cells trying to put together the pieces of this statute.” Justice Sotomayor wondered how the Court could interpret the meaning of “public lands” differently in multiple sections of the statute. “I’m struggling with this,” confessed Justice Kagan.

SCOTUSblog has a full summary of oral arguments here.

This “little case” may have big consequences, noted Matthew J. Sanders in the ABA newsletter Trends last year. Sturgeon may come to define the nature and reach of the federal government’s authority over waters in and beyond Alaska.”

Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren

The Court also heard oral arguments in Virginia Uranium, Inc., involving a jurisdictional question regarding the safe handling of radioactive material. Specifically, the issue is whether the federal Atomic Energy Act (AEA) preempts a Virginia state law regulating radioactive material within its jurisdiction.

In the early 1980s, in response to the nuclear disaster in 1979 at  Three Mile Island, Virginia passed a law banning the mining of uranium within the state. The law had a sunset clause that went into effect a year after its enactment. In 1983, the Virginia legislature renewed the law indefinitely. Virginia Uranium, Inc. saw the potential in one of the largest untapped uranium deposits in the country (roughly $7 billion as of 2011), and wants to mine the prospect but is prevented from doing so by this state law.

The case hinges on Virginia’s reasoning behind its prohibition of mining uranium. Laws involving improper extraction and storage of materials are regulated by federal law, namely the AEA, which designates the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as responsible for this issue.

As Justice Kagan noted at oral argument, because the legislative history shows that the Virginia law was in response to safety concerns, it is more vulnerable to preemption than state bans on mining motivated for other reasons.

“Suppose Virginia had said, ‘We think that the extraction is a dangerous activity, so we are justifying this ban on mining to protect the workers from the hazards associated with mining,’” Justice Ginsburg asked the attorney arguing the case for Virginia Uranium, Charles J. Cooper. Cooper responded that the company would lose if that were the case.  

Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco warned that if the Court allowed a ban on mining for reasons besides concerns for extraction and storage, the Court would be “giving state and local governments a road map for undermining a multibillion-dollar industry.”

SCOTUSblog has a full summary of oral arguments here.


This Post was Written by ISCOTUS Fellow Michael Halpin, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, and edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Matthew Webber, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019, and ISCOTUS Co-Director and Chicago-Kent Faculty Member Christopher W. Schmidt.


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