Regulating tankers is business of U.S., high court says

Decision strikes down Washington state rules meant to protect waters

March 07, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the problem of oil spills from huge tanker ships must be handled mainly by the federal government, not the states.

The justices struck down rules on tanker operation that Washington state imposed to protect its waters, including Puget Sound, after the oil spill in Alaska in 1989 from the tanker Exxon Valdez. The decision also raised doubts about a dozen other Washington state rules on tanker operation.

"Congress has left no room for state regulation" of tanker design, construction, operation and crew manning, the court said in an opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Voicing concern about the "destructive power" of oil spills, the court said it was up to Congress and the Coast Guard to find nationally uniform ways to head off such damage.

States are left with two kinds of authority over tankers in their waters: They may impose fines and other punishments for actual spills, and they may set rules that are confined to local conditions in their waterways, such as depths and traffic patterns.

The Maryland Department of the Environment had considered adopting limits on tanker operation in the Chesapeake Bay, but chose instead to rely on federal rules imposed by the Coast Guard, a spokesman said.

In the Washington state case, the court nullified rules that required training of tanker crew members, required that crew members be able to speak English, controlled lookout duties and required reports on collisions, groundings and oil spills.

The court, in another unanimous decision, ruled that prosecutors can point out to the jury that because the defendant has heard all the other witnesses, the accused can adapt his or her own testimony to conform. Such an argument does not violate the accused person's constitutional right to be present at the trial, the court declared.

In an unexplained order, the court refused to revive a lawsuit by four Republican members of Congress against President Clinton. The suit claimed that Clinton has no constitutional power to create federal programs by executive order, without approval by Congress.

The court also declined to second-guess a decision by the National Archives that allows U.S. agencies to wipe out some of their computer files, so long as they keep paper copies. Librarians and historians had argued that public access to computer files is easier to use than to paper files.

The court also refused to hear constitutional challenges to state laws that treat Good Friday as a legal holiday. The court turned down a taxpayer's challenge to a Good Friday closing law in Indiana; it rejected a similar challenge to a Maryland law in January.

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