“Raisins are not wild animals even when they are dancing,” Michael McConnell told the U.S. Supreme Court last term, thereby winning the first annual Epps Award for Coolest Argument Line of the term. I am hoping that this year’s winner will be: “When hovercrafts are outlawed, only outlaws will have hovercrafts.”
McConnell, a former federal judge and current Stanford professor, was challenging a federal agricultural program that required growers to turn a portion of each crop over to the government. (He won.) Hovercrafts are the issue in Sturgeon v. Masica, which asks whether the federal government can keep John Sturgeon, a 75-year-old Alaska outdoorsman, from using his personal hovercraft to stalk the wily moose in the wilds of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The Court’s cert. grant on October 1 was greeted with some confusion. The question is whether, in some way not readily discernible, the case is a stalking moose for an attempt to cut back on the power of the federal government to manage lands entrusted by statute to its supervision.
In its brief opposing a grant, the federal government described the case in soothing tones. “The question whether hovercraft may be navigated on navigable waters within national parks’ boundaries,” the Solicitor General wrote, “is not in itself one of surpassing significance.” Indeed, it says, the rules are “far from burdensome,” adding that the state of Alaska is “unable to identify any way in which the regulations either burden its activities or conflict with its own enactments.” Alaska, in an amicus brief supporting cert., sees the principle behind the case, by contrast, as a matter of life and death: “What is at stake here for Alaska,” it says, “is not just a different view . . . about permissible weekend recreation or the best method of routing tourists through national parks. . . . [U]nencumbered access to Alaska’s waters and meaningful use of Alaska’s natural resources is necessary to sustain life in much of rural Alaska.”