CA Supreme Court invites state to frustrate federal policy

August 22, 2016 | By JONATHAN WOOD

The California Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited decision in People v. Rinehart, concerning the legality of the state’s ban on suction dredge mining. The case concerns an apparent conflict between federal law, which encourages mining on federal lands, and the state’s ban against the only practicable method of mining stream bed claims. Despite the conflict, the Court denied the federal Mining Act any preemptive effect, essentially holding that state’s are free to frustrate or prohibit mining willy-nilly, no matter how obviously that may frustrate federal policy.

The decision is disappointing, not least because it squarely conflicts with existing precedent, including a decision from the Supreme Court of the United States. As our amicus brief explained, the Supreme Court’s Granite Rock decision, held that states retain some authority to regulate the environmental impacts of mining, notwithstanding the federal policy in favor of it. But, if states go too far, by overregulating or banning mining in lieu of regulating it, that would be preempted. The California Supreme Court’s decision also conflicts with South Dakota Mining Association. In that case, the Eighth Circuit held that the Mining Act preempted a county’s ban on a mining method because it rendered mining commercially impracticable, in clear conflict with federal law’s encouragement of the activity.

California’s position in this case was significantly undermined by the fact that, although federal law leaves it ample room to regulate mining’s impact, it chose to simply ban mining outright instead. As I explained in my post announcing the filing of PLF’s amicus brief:

Apparently unsatisfied with this balanced approach, California decided to topple the scales, like a child (or attorney-blogger) who upends a board game when it’s not going his way. It banned suction dredge mining entirely, citing environmental concerns. However, it’s admitted that this mining can be environmentally beneficial (depending on when, where, and how it’s done) and its impacts regulated in other circumstances. Nonetheless, it has chosen not to regulate these impacts, even though federal law would accommodate such regulation. It has instituted a permanent ban that can’t be lifted until a state agency adopts regulations to mitigate this mining’s impacts. The agency has told the legislature that, although it would love to adopt the regulations, it doesn’t actually have the statutory authority to do so. Naturally the legislature promptly gave the agency the authority and everyone lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. It did nothing. For reasons known only to it, the legislature has never bothered to give the agency authority that it demands the agency exercise before miners can get back to work.

The California Supreme Court’s decision completely overlooks this aspect of the problem, describing the state ban as “temporary” without any analysis. The “temporary” ban has been in place for nearly a decade, with no end in sight.

In light of these problems, this case appears to have a better chance than most of getting the U.S. Supreme Court’s attention.