Monday, June 17, 2019
The Supreme Court today upheld Virginia's ban on uranium mining against a federal preemption challenge by a mining company. The ruling says that the federal Atomic Energy Act does not preempt Virginia's ban.
The case, Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren, arose when Virginia Uranium sought to mine raw uranium ore from a site near Coles Hill, Virginia. The problem: Virginia law prohibits uranium mining in the Commonwealth. So Virginia Uranium sued, arguing that the ban was preempted under the federal AEA.
The Court ruled 6-3 that the AEA did not preempt the Commonwealth's ban. Justice Gorsuch wrote the lead opinion, joined by Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh. He wrote that the AEA, by its plain terms, regulated milling and waste disposal, but not mining. So the AEA doesn't field-preempt Virginia's ban, and it doesn't obstacle-preempt Virginia's ban. Justice Gorsuch emphasized a textual approach, because, he argued, considering state legislative purposes (in a field preemption analysis) and congressional purposes (in an obstacle preemption analysis) would be fraught with difficulties and uncertainties.
Justice Ginsburg wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. She agreed with Justice Gorsuch, but argued that "his discussion of the perils of inquiring into legislative motive sweeps well beyond the confines of this case, and therefore seems to me inappropriate in an opinion speaking for the Court, rather than for individual members of the Court." Moreover, "Virginia Uranium's obstacle preemption arguments fail under existing doctrine, so there is little reason to question, as Justice Gorsuch does, whether that doctrine should be retained."
Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Alito. He argued that Virginia sought an end-run around the AEA by banning mining (which the AEA doesn't regulate), but for the purpose of banning milling and waste (which the AEA does regulate).
Thus, the question before us is whether, consistent with the AEA and our precedents, the Commonwealth may purport to regulate a non-preempted field (mining safety) with the purpose and effect of indirectly regulating a preempted field (milling and [waste]). That should have made for an easy case.
Under our AEA precedents, a state law is preempted not only when it "conflicts with federal law," but also when its purpose is to regulate within a preempted field.