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Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 2019

587 U.S.__(2019)
v.
JOHN WARREN, ET AL. VIRGINIA URANIUM, INC., ET AL., PETITIONERS

          Argued November 5, 2018

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

         Petitioner Virginia Uranium, Inc., wants to mine raw uranium ore from

a site near Coles Hill, Virginia, but Virginia law flatly prohibits uranium mining in the Commonwealth. The company filed suit, alleging that, under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) preempts state uranium mining laws like Virginia's and ensconces the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as the lone regulator in the field. Both the District Court and the Fourth Circuit rejected the company's argument, finding that while the AEA affords the NRC considerable authority over the nuclear fuel life cycle, it offers no hint that Congress sought to strip States of their traditional power to regulate mining on private lands within their borders.

         Held: The judgment is affirmed.

         848 F.3d 590, affirmed.

          Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Ka-VANAUGH, concluded that the AEA does not preempt Virginia's law banning uranium mining. Pp. 3-17.

(a) Virginia Uranium claims that the AEA is best read to reserve to the NRC alone the regulation of uranium mining based on nuclear safety concerns. But the AEA contains no provision expressly preempting state law. More pointedly, it grants the NRC extensive and sometimes exclusive authority to regulate nearly every aspect of the nuclear fuel life cycle except mining, expressly stating that the NRC's regulatory powers arise only "after [uranium's] removal from its place of deposit in nature," 42 U.S.C. §2092. And statutory context confirms this reading: If the federal government wants to control uranium mining on private land, it must purchase or seize the land by eminent domain and make it federal land, §2096, indicating that state authority remains untouched. Later amendments to the AEA point to the same conclusion. Section 2021 allows the NRC to devolve certain of its regulatory powers to the States but does nothing to extend the NRC's power to activities, like mining, historically beyond its reach. And §2021(k) explains that States remain free to regulate the activities discussed in §2021 for purposes other than nuclear safety without the NRC's consent. Virginia Uranium contends instead that subsection (k) greatly expands the AEAs preemptive effect by demanding the displacement of any state law enacted for the purpose of protection the public against "radiation hazards." But subsection (k) merely clarifies that nothing in §2021 limits States' ability to regulate the activities subject to NRC control for other purposes. In addition, the company's reading would prohibit not only the States from regulating uranium mining to protect against radiation hazards but the federal government as well, since the AEA affords it no authority to regulate uranium mining on private land. Pp. 4-7.
(b) Virginia Uranium also submits that preemption may be found in this Court's precedents, pointing to Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190, which rejected a preemption challenge to a state law prohibiting the construction of new nuclear power plants after the Court observed that it was enacted out of concern with economic development, not for the purpose of addressing radiation safety hazards. But Pacific Gas concerned a state moratorium on construction of new nuclear power plants, and nuclear plant construction has always been an area exclusively regulated by the federal government. It is one thing to inquire exactingly into state legislative purposes when state law comes close to trenching on core federal powers; it is another thing altogether to insist on the same exacting scrutiny for state laws far removed from core NRC powers. Later cases confirm the propriety of restraint in this area. See, e.g., Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238; English v. General Elec. Co., 496 U.S. 72. This Court has generally treated field preemption as depending on what the State did, not why it did it. See, e.g., Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387. And because inquiries into legislative purpose both invite well-known conceptual and practical problems and pose risks to federalism and individual liberty, this Court has long warned against undertaking potential misadventures into hidden state legislative intentions without a clear statutory mandate for the project, see, e.g., Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates, P. A. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 559 U.S. 393, 404-405. Pp. 7-14.
(c) Virginia Uranium alternatively suggests that that the AEA displaces state law through so-called conflict preemption-in particular, that Virginia's mining law stands as an impermissible "obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress," Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67. But any "[e]vidence of pre-emptive purpose," whether express or implied, must be "sought in the [statute's] text and structure." CSX Transp., Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658, 664. Efforts to ascribe unenacted purposes and objectives to a federal statute face many of the same challenges as inquiries into state legislative intent. The only thing a court can be sure of is what can be found in the law itself. And the compromise that Congress actually struck in the AEA leaves mining regulation on private land to the States and grants the NRC regulatory authority only after uranium is removed from the earth. It is also unclear whether laws like Virginia's might have a meaningful impact on the development of nuclear power in this country given the other available foreign and domestic sources of uranium. Pp. 14-17.
Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Soto may or and Justice Ka-GAN, agreed with JUSTICE GORSUCH that the Commonwealth's mining ban is not preempted but concluded that his discussion of the perils of inquiring into legislative motive sweeps well beyond the confines of this case. Further, Virginia Uranium's obstacle preemption arguments fail under existing doctrine, so there is little reason to question whether that doctrine should be retained. Pp. 1-14.
(a) The Commonwealth has forbidden conventional uranium mining on private land. The AEA leaves that activity unregulated. State law on the subject is therefore not preempted, whatever the reason for the law's enactment. Pp. 7-8.
(b) Section 2O2l(k) lends no support for Virginia Uranium's cause. That provision is most sensibly read to clarify that the door newly opened for state regulation of certain activities for nuclear safety purposes left in place pre-existing state authority to regulate activities for nonradiological purposes. House and Senate Reports endorse this reading of §2021 (k). Pp. 8-9.
(c) Virginia Uranium leans heavily on a statement in Pacific Gas & Else. Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190, that "the Federal Government has occupied the entire field of nuclear safety concerns." Id., at 212. But neither in that case nor in later decisions in its wake-Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., A&A U.S. 238; English v. General Elec. Co., 496 U.S. 72-did the Court rest preemption on the purposes for which state laws were enacted. Indeed, in all three, the Court held that the laws at issue were not preempted. Moreover, the state law involved in Pacific Gas addressed an activity-construction of nuclear power plants-closely regulated by the AEA. Inquiry into why the state law at issue in that case was enacted was therefore proper under §2021(k). The Commonwealth's mining ban, in contrast, governs an activity not regulated by the AEA. Pp. 9-10.
(d) The Solicitor General's argument-that the Commonwealth's mining ban is preempted because it is a pretext for regulating the radiological safety hazards of milling and tailings storage-is unpersuasive. To the degree the AEA preempts state laws based on the purposes for which they were enacted, §2021(k) stakes out the boundaries of the preempted field. National Meat Assn. v. Harris, 565 U.S. 452, distinguished. Pp. 10-11.
(e) Virginia Uranium and the United States also fail to show that the mining ban creates an "unacceptable 'obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.'" Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555, 563-564. Pp. 12-14.

          GORSUCH, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THOMAS and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which SOTOMAYOR and KAGAN, JJ., joined. ROBERTS, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER and Alito, JJ., joined.

          JUSTICE GORSUCH announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE THOMAS and Justice Kavanaugh join.

          OPINION

          GORSUCH JUSTICE.

         Virginia Uranium insists that the federal Atomic Energy Act preempts a state law banning uranium mining, but we do not see it. True, the AEA gives the Nuclear Regulatory Commission significant authority over the milling, transfer, use, and disposal of uranium, as well as the construction and operation of nuclear power plants. But Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the States' historic authority over the regulation of mining activities on private lands within their borders. Nor do we see anything to suggest that the enforcement of Virginia's law would frustrate the AEAs purposes and objectives. And we are hardly free to extend a federal statute to a sphere Congress was well aware of but chose to leave alone. In this, as in any field of statutory interpretation, it is our duty to respect not only what Congress wrote but, as importantly, what it didn't write.

         I

         Virginia Uranium thought its plan was pretty straightforward. First, the company wanted to use conventional mining techniques to extract raw uranium ore from a site near Coles Hill, Virginia. Next, it intended to mill that ore into a usable form. Typically performed at the mine site, milling involves grinding the ore into sand-sized grains and then exposing it to a chemical solution that leaches out pure uranium. Once dried, the resulting mixture forms a solid "yellow cake," which the company planned to sell to enrichment facilities that produce fuel for nuclear reactors. Finally, because the leaching process does not remove all of the uranium from the ore, the company expected to store the leftover "tailings" near the mine to reduce the chances of contaminating the air or water.

         But putting the plan into action didn't prove so simple. Pursuant to the AEA, ch. 724, 60 Stat. 755, 42 U.S.C. §2011 et seq., the NRC regulates milling and tailing storage activities nationwide, and it has issued an array of rules on these subjects. See, e.g., 10 CFR §40 et seq. (2018). None of those, though, proved the real problem for Virginia Uranium. The company hit a roadblock even before it could get to the point where the NRC's rules kick in: State law flatly prohibits uranium mining in Virginia. See Va. Code Ann. §§45.1-161.292:30, 45.1-283 (2013); 848 F.3d 590, 593-594 (CA4 2017).

         To overcome that obstacle, Virginia Uranium filed this lawsuit. The company alleged that, under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, the AEA preempts state uranium mining laws like Virginia's and ensconces the NRC as the lone regulator in the field. And because the NRC's regulations say nothing about uranium mining, the company continued, it remains free to mine as it will in Virginia or elsewhere.

         Both the district court and a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit rejected the company's argument. The courts acknowledged that the AEA affords the NRC considerable authority over the nuclear fuel life cycle. But both courts found missing from the AEA any hint that Congress sought to strip States of their traditional power to regulate mining on private lands within their borders. Given the significance of the question presented, we granted review. 584 U.S.__(2018).

         II

         The Supremacy Clause supplies a rule of priority. It provides that the "Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof," are "the supreme Law of the Land . . . any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding." Art. VI, cl. 2. This Court has sometimes used different labels to describe the different ways in which federal statutes may displace state laws-speaking, for example, of express, field, and conflict preemption. But these categories "are not rigidly distinct." Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363, 372, n. 6 (2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). And at least one feature unites them: Invoking some brooding federal interest or appealing to a judicial policy preference should never be enough to win preemption of a state law; a litigant must point specifically to "a constitutional text or a federal statute" that does the displacing or conflicts with state law. Puerto Rico Dept. of Consumer Affairs v. ISLA Petroleum Corp., 485 U.S. 495, 503 (1988); see also 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §1831, p. 694 (1st ed. 1833) ("the supremacy of the laws is attached to those only, which are made in pursuance of the constitution").

         Before us, Virginia Uranium contends that the AEA (and only the AEA) unseats state uranium mining regulations and that it does so under the doctrines of both field and conflict preemption. We examine these arguments about the AEA's preemptive effect much as we would any other about statutory meaning, looking to the text and context of the law in question and guided by the traditional tools of statutory interpretation. Here, no more than in any statutory interpretation dispute, is it enough for any party or court to rest on a supposition (or wish) that "it must be in there somewhere."

         A

         We begin with the company's claim that the text and structure of the AEA reserve the regulation of uranium mining for the purpose of addressing nuclear safety concerns to the NRC alone-and almost immediately problems emerge. Unlike many federal statutes, [1] the AEA contains no provision preempting state law in so many words. Even more pointedly, the statute grants the NRC extensive and sometimes exclusive authority to regulate nearly every aspect of the nuclear fuel life cycle except mining. Companies like Virginia Uranium must abide the NRC's rules and regulations if they wish to handle enriched uranium, to mill uranium ore or store tailings, or to build or run a nuclear power plant. See 42 U.S.C. §§2111(a), 2113(a), 2073. But when it comes to mining, the statute speaks very differently, expressly stating that the NRC's regulatory powers arise only "after [uranium's] removal from its place of deposit in nature." §2092 (emphasis added). As the government itself has conceded, this means that "uranium mining" lies "outside the NRC's jurisdiction," Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 14, and the agency's grip takes hold only "at the mill, rather than at the mine," In re Hydro Resources, Inc., 63 N. R. C. 510, 512 (2006).

         What the text states, context confirms. After announcing a general rule that mining regulation lies outside the NRC's jurisdiction, the AEA carves out a notably narrow exception. On federal lands, the statute says, the NRC may regulate uranium mining. §2097. And if the federal government wants to control mining of uranium on private land, the AEA tells the NRC exactly what to do: It may purchase or seize the land by eminent domain and make it federal land. §2096. Congress thus has spoken directly to the question of uranium mining on private land, and every bit of what it's said indicates that state authority remains untouched.

         Later amendments to the AEA point to the same conclusion. Some years after the statute's passage, Congress added a provision, currently codified in §2021, allowing the NRC to devolve certain of its regulatory powers to the States. Unsurprisingly, Congress indicated that the NRC must maintain regulatory control over especially sensitive activities like the construction of nuclear power plants. §2021(c). But under §2021(b) the NRC may now, by agreement, pass to the States some of its preexisting authorities to regulate various nuclear materials "for the protection of the public health and safety from radiation hazards." Out of apparent concern that courts might (mis)read these new provisions as prohibiting States from regulating any activity even tangentially related to nuclear power without first reaching an agreement with the NRC, Congress added subsection (k):

"Nothing in this section [that is, §2021] shall be construed to affect the authority of any State or local agency to regulate activities for purposes other than protection against radiation hazards."

         Section 2021, thus, did nothing to extend the NRC's power to activities, like mining, historically beyond its reach. Instead, it served only to allow the NRC to share with the States some of the powers previously reserved to the federal government. Even then, the statute explained in subsection (k) that States remain free to regulate the activities discussed in §2021 for purposes other than nuclear safety without the NRC's consent. Indeed, if anything, subsection (k) might be described as a non-preemption clause.

         Virginia Uranium's case hinges on a very different construction of subsection (k). The company suggests that, properly read, the provision greatly expands the preemptive effect of the AEA and demands the displacement of any state law (touching on mining or any other subject) if that law was enacted for the purpose of protecting the public against "radiation hazards." And, the company adds, Virginia's law bears just such an impermissible purpose.

         In our view, this reading nearly turns the provision on its head. Subsection (k) does not displace traditional state regulation over mining or otherwise extend the NRC's grasp to matters previously beyond its control. It does not expose every state law on every subject to a searching judicial inquiry into its latent purposes. Instead and much more modestly, it clarifies that "nothing in this [new] section [2021]"-a section allowing for the devolution-by-agreement of federal regulatory authority- should be construed to curtail the States' ability to regulate the activities discussed in that same section for purposes other than protecting against radiation hazards. So only state laws that seek to regulate the activities discussed in §2021 without an NRC agreement-activities like the construction of nuclear power plants-may be scrutinized to ensure their purposes aim at something other than regulating nuclear safety. Really, to accomplish all it wants, Virginia Uranium would have to persuade us to read 13 words out of the statute and add 2 more:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect tho authority of any State or local agency to may regulate activities only for purposes other than protection against radiation hazards.

         That may be a statute some would prefer, but it is not the statute we have.

         Just consider what would follow from Virginia Uranium's interpretation. Not only would States be prohibited from regulating uranium mining to protect against radiation hazards; the federal government likely would be barred from doing so as well. After all, the NRC has long believed, and still maintains, that the AEA affords it no authority to regulate uranium mining on private land. Nor does Virginia Uranium dispute the federal government's understanding. Admittedly, if Virginia Uranium were to prevail here, the NRC might respond by changing course and seeking to regulate uranium mining for the first time. But given the statute's terms, the prospects that it might do so successfully in the face of a legal challenge appear gloomy. Admittedly, as well, federal air and water and other regulations might apply at a uranium mine much as at any other workplace. But the possibility that both state and federal authorities would be left unable to regulate the unique risks posed by ...


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