Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Tenth Circuit Upholds Prairie-Dog Protection Under Endangered Species Act Against Commerce Clause Challenge
The Tenth Circuit today rebuffed a challenge to the Endangered Species Act and ruled that Congress had authority to enact the Act under the Commerce Clause. The ruling in PETPO v. FWS upholds the Fish and Wildlife Service's regulation protecting Utah prairie dogs.
The ruling deals a(nother) blow to challengers of ESA regs that protect purely intra-state species and reaffirms federal authority to protect those species under the Commerce Clause. (Because the court held that the prairie-dog reg was authorized under the Commerce Clause, it did not separately address whether it's authorized under the Necessary and Proper Clause.)
We might keep an eye on this case and any others like it. If Judge Gorsuch is confirmed, he could tilt the balance on the Court against ESA regs--and in favor of yet more restrictions on congressional authority under the Commerce Clause. (Remember that Justice Scalia concurred in Gonzales v. Raich, the basis for the Tenth Circuit's ruling. Judge Gorsuch might not agree, or might see this case through the Lopez- and Morrison-lenses of the plaintiffs. Judge Gorsuch was not on the Tenth Circuit panel in this case.)
The court applied the test from Gonzales v. Raich, which upheld the federal prohibition on home-grown marijuana for medical use because it was part of a larger regulatory scheme (the federal Controlled Substances Act), which itself was authorized under the Commerce Clause. At the same time, the court specifically rejected PETPO's argument that it should consider the prairie-dog regulation only in isolation (like the Gun-Free School Zones Act in U.S. v. Lopez or the individual cause of action in United States v. Morrison)--not as part of the larger ESA scheme. By analyzing the reg under Raich (and not under the provision-specific approach in Lopez and Morrison), the court aligned with other circuits that have ruled on the question.
The court summarized its test:
In short, the Commerce Clause authorizes regulation of noncommercial, purely intrastate activity that is an essential part of a broader regulatory scheme that, as a whole, substantially affects interstate commerce (i.e., has a substantial relation to interstate commerce). Therefore, to uphold the challenged regulation here, we need only conclude that Congress had a rational basis to believe that such a regulation constituted an essential part of a comprehensive regulatory scheme that, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce.
The court rejected PETPO's contention that it shouldn't apply Raich, because PETPO lodged a facial challenge to the specific prairie-dog provision under Lopez and Morrison, and not "an application to a particular subset of activity, as in Raich." The court said,
the real crux of PETPO's challenge is not a challenge to any particular FWS regulation but to Congress's power to authorize regulation of the Utah prairie dog. Although PETPO is, in a sense, correct that the prohibition on take of the Utah prarie dog is "a particular challenged provision," this prohibition finds its place within the broader regulatory scheme of the ESA's protections of endangered and threatened species. More specifically, the prohibition at issue is an instance of Congress's broad authorization to use regulations to extend the take protections that endangered species enjoy to those listed as threatened.
The court said that "the Court in both Lopez and Raich looked past the larger enactment and characterized the Gun-Free School Zones Act as an independent statute."
The court also rejected PETPO's argument that the ESA "is a comprehensive scheme to provide for environmental conservation, not [to] regulate a market." The court said that this was based on too cramped a reading of Raich, which, the court said, doesn't require a "comprehensive economic scheme." Instead, Raich only required a "comprehensive regulatory scheme" that has a "substantial relation to commerce." The court said that the ESA prohibitions easily meet this standard, based on their plain economic effects (some of which PETPO itself raised as the harms that formed the basis of its suit).
The court went on to hold that Congress had a rational basis for thinking that the prairie-dog-protection reg constituted an essential part of the ESA, a comprehensive regulatory scheme, that, "in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce."