480 U. S. 572
March 24, 1987
Granite Rock obtained regulatory permission from the Forest Service to conduct mining operations in federal lands for five years. A few years into the mining operations, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) demanded that Granite Rock obtain a permit from them as well. Granite Rock refused, claiming that the CCC was preempted from adding land use regulations to those promulgated by federal agencies.
In a 5-4 decision, O’Connor wrote that state permits like those demanded by the CCC were not per se preempted by federal regulation. First, the Court unanimously turned back some jurisdiction issues. The case was not moot even though Granite Rock’s mining operations had ended, and it was not barred due to a state statute being held unconstitutional by a Court of Appeals (the Court had not considered the statute which gave rise to the CCC). Turning to the merits, O’Connor argued that Forest Service regulations made plentiful mention of the desire to not preempt state environmental laws. Next, she contended that the CCC’s permit system was not land use regulation, which the Court did admit might be preempted under certain federal laws. Because the CCC did not seek to outright prohibit any company from mining, the Court characterized the permit system as environmental regulation rather than land use planning. Finally, O’Connor rejected an argument that a federal law called the CZMA precluded state regulation, since the plain text of that law proved otherwise. Somewhat amazingly, she managed to do all of this using only two footnotes.
Powell wrote a dissent joined by Stevens. First, he found that, despite condoning certain state regulation, the Forest Services rules actually suggested that California’s system would be preempted because of the expressio unius principle. Second, he found it impossible to distinguish land use planning from environmental regulation. Third, he thought state interest in regulation was minimal due to a clause in the Constitution giving the government plenary control over federal lands. Finally, he argued that state permit systems could easily thwart federal land use regulations.
Scalia wrote a dissent joined by White. His argument was quite simple: there was absolutely no way to call the CCC’s permit system anything other than land use regulation, and land use regulation was clearly preempted. His examination of the CCC’s purposes, powers, and behavior provided especially strong support for this claim. It’s a brilliant dissent. In my opinion, this is the first Scalia opinion of the term that really showcases his unique voice. As to the decision itself, I’ll say only that it was an awful ruling, and that states should get out of federal land regulation.
Memorable quote from Justice Powell: “In summary, it is fair to say that, commencing in 1872, Congress has created an almost impenetrable maze of arguably relevant legislation in no less than a half-dozen statutes, augmented by the regulations of two Departments of the Executive. There is little cause for wonder that the language of these statutes and regulations has generated considerable confusion.”