As usual, the last month of the Supreme Court’s term generated significant rulings on all manner of cases, possibly presaging the new directions the Court will be taking in administrative and regulatory law. Here’s a brief roundup:
An Offshore Dispute, Resolve – Parker Drilling Management v. Newton
On June 10, 2019, the Court held, in a unanimous ruling, that, under federal law, California wage and hour laws do not apply to offshore operations conducted on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Newton, the plaintiff, worked on drilling platforms off the coast of California, and alleged that he was not paid for his “standby time” which is contrary to California law if not federal law. He filed a class action in state court, which was removed to federal court, where it was dismissed on the basis of a 1969 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which held that state law applies on the OCS only to the extent that it is necessary to use state law to fill a significant gap or void in federal law, and this is not the case here. On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, that court disagreed with the Fifth Circuit, and ruled that state law is applicable on the OCS whenever it applies to the matter at hand. The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, conceded that “this is a close question of statutory interpretation,” but in the end the Court agreed with the argument that if there was not a gap to fill, that ended the dispute over which law applies on the Outer continental Shelf. This ruling, recognizing the preeminent role that federal law plays on the OCS, may affect the resolution of other offshore disputes affecting other federal statutes.
Preemption Prevention – Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren. et al.
On June 17, 2019 the Court decided important cases involving federal preemption and First Amendment issues. In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that the Atomic Energy Act does not preempt a Virginia law that “flatly prohibits uranium mining in Virginia”—or more precisely—mining on non-federal land in Virginia. Virginia Uranium planned to mine raw uranium from a site near Coles, Virginia, but acknowledging that Virginia law forbade such an operation, challenged the state law on federal preemption grounds, arguing that the Atomic Energy Act, as implemented by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, preempts the ability of the state to regulate this activity. However, the majority, in an opinion written by Justice Gorsuch, notes that the “best reading of the AEA does not require us to hold the state law before us preempted,” and that the1983 precedent that Virginia Uranium cites, Pacific Gas & Electric Company v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission, can easily be distinguished. Justice Gorsuch rejected arguments that the intent of the Virginia legislators in passing the state law should be consulted, that the Court’s ruling should normally be governed by the exact text of the statute at hand. However, both the concurring and dissenting opinions suggest that the what the legislators intended to do is important in a preemption context.