Hovercraft and the Supreme Court, an Alaskan case of State's rights

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - An Alaskan resident who has been fighting a legal battle for almost 10 years is now looking to bring the case back before the U.S. Supreme Court. And this time, he has some help.

In 2007, the National Park Service instructed John Sturgeon that he could not operate his hovercraft on the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Sturgeon had been operating the craft to go moose hunting on what's known as a Conservation System Unit, where the NPS says such use is federally banned.

In 2011, Sturgeon sued, arguing that under state law, the craft's use is permitted on "navigable water," which runs through a state-owned riverbed.

From that, spiraled the years-long battle between Sturgeon and the NPS with multiple court rulings. The case eventually found itself being referred to the highest court in the country after a ruling in favor of the NPS.

In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Park Service's actions were correct and upheld prohibiting Sturgeon's amphibious vehicle.

The three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Park Service has regulatory authority over a river in a preserve in Alaska, even if the state claims ownership of the riverbed.

When this ruling was then referred to the Supreme Court, Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said the higher court kicked the case back to the Ninth Circuit to reconsider their ruling.

“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,” Lindemuth said in a news release.

However, according to the State, that didn't happen. While the case was kicked back to the Ninth Circuit with the Supreme Court advice, the Ninth Circuit ruled again to uphold their earlier ruling against Sturgeon.

“Instead," Lindemuth continued, "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.”

Though in the past Sturgeon had largely been fighting this issue on his own dime, now the State intends to assist him beyond "friend of the court" briefs.

“The State owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Sturgeon for continuing this fight," Alaska Governor Bill Walker said in a statement, "and the least we can do is support him in his efforts and defend the State's sovereign rights."

Now, Sturgeon's legal team, assisted by the State of Alaska, will attempt to bring the case before the Supreme Court for a second time, owing to what they call "the Ninth Circuit’s failure to properly apply the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act."

It remains to be seen what steps the Supreme Court will decide to take after revisiting the issue again, but Walker is hopeful that Sturgeon and the State will come out on top this time around.

"We hope the Court will act to uphold Alaska’s sovereign interest in managing its lands and waters," Walker said.

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