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State urges U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Ninth Circuit's recent decision in waterways sovereignty case


February 07, 2018
Wednesday AM

(SitNews) Anchorage, Alaska - The State of Alaska in an amicus brief filed Monday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear John Sturgeon’s waterways sovereignty case and to ultimately overturn the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision of October 2017.

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Sturgeon filed his petition for certiorari on January 5, 2018 and the State is says it is hopeful that the Supreme Court will once again review these important issues related to the State’s right to manage its own submerged lands and navigable waters flowing over the top of those lands.

“Last time Mr. Sturgeon went before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court sent a very clear message to the Ninth Circuit – you must take Alaska's unique statutes and history into account,” Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said. “Instead, the Ninth Circuit completely ignored the Supreme Court’s guidance and expanded a federal doctrine on reserved water rights far beyond its ordinary and reasonable meaning.”

This case arises out of Sturgeon’s operation of his private hovercraft on Nation River, a state navigable water running through a federal national park area known as a Conservation System Unit. Sturgeon was using a hovercraft on his annual moose-hunting trip - an activity permitted under state law - when the National Park Service threatened him with a citation for violating a federal ban on hovercraft use in park units. Sturgeon sued, challenging the federal government’s assertion of broad regulatory authority. The State filed its own suit as well but was dismissed for lack of standing. Since that time, the State has supported Sturgeon’s legal efforts by filing amicus briefs, also known as “friend of the court” briefs. 

This case already made its way to the Supreme Court previously after the Ninth Circuit held in favor of the National Park Service, but the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit in March 2016 with specific guidance on Alaska's unique history and federal statutes that apply and asked the Ninth Circuit to review the case again. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in March 2016, in an unanimous decision (0-8) written by Chief Justice John Roberts, handed a narrow victory to John Sturgeon in his legal challenge to the U.S. government’s power to prevent him from riding his hovercraft on a river through a federal preserve to reach remote moose-hunting grounds.

The Supreme Court threw out a lower court ruling in 2016 favoring government, but did not decide the bigger question of whether the government can regulate hovercraft use on a waterway within park service property in Alaska.

Rather than using the Supreme Court’s emphasis on State sovereignty as a guide, the Ninth Circuit held that the federal government has broad authority, stemming from the federal government’s reserved water rights, to regulate navigable waters in federal national park areas in Alaska - despite the State’s ownership of submerged lands. Sturgeon and the State both believe the Ninth Circuit is again wrong, and Sturgeon has requested the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue for a second time due to the Ninth Circuit’s failure to properly apply the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and recognize state management authority over navigable waters in the State.

“The State owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Sturgeon for continuing this fight, and the least we can do is support him in his efforts and defend the State's sovereign rights,” Governor Bill Walker said. “We have and will continue working closely with John Sturgeon and his legal team to again seek Supreme Court review of the Ninth Circuit decision. We hope the Court will act to uphold Alaska’s sovereign interest in managing its lands and waters.”

The Oct. 2017 opinion written by 9th Circuit Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen stated, "John Sturgeon would like to use his hovercraft in a national preserve to reach moose hunting grounds. The State of Alaska is fine with that;1 the federal government is not. Sturgeon’s case turns on which entity - state or federal - gets to decide the matter. On remand from the Supreme Court, we again conclude that the federal government properly exercised its authority to regulate hovercraft use on the rivers within conservation system units in Alaska."

Judge Nguyen acknowledged that the panel was bound by case law to analyze this case under the reserved water doctrine, but she would conclude that this case is better analyzed under the Commerce Clause as it is about the right to regulate navigation on navigable waters within an Alaska national preserve.

The case was heard before Jerome Farris, Dorothy W. Nelson, and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges.



On the Web:

State of Alaska's amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear John Sturgeon’s case [PDF]

U.S. Supreme Court Opinion March 22, 2016 [PDF]

Sturgeon v. Frost - United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court - Heard October 2017 [PDF]



Editing by Mary Kauffman, SitNews


Source of News:

Office of Governor Bill Walker

Ninth Circuit Court



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