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Sturgeon case exposed virtues, flaws of U.S. justice system

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 8
  • Published April 6

John Sturgeon, in front of the Supreme Court, is part of a case involving a hovercraft and moose hunting,, on January, 17, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post)

On March 26, when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously approved John Sturgeon’s right to use a hovercraft to hunt moose on the Nation River in the Yukon-Charlie National Preserve, it had been more than 11 years since he was ordered off the river in 2007 and nearly eight years since he first filed his lawsuit to have his right to use the river affirmed.

This September, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, Sturgeon “can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose,” and he has said he plans to. His case, in its circuitous path through the U.S. justice system, is an excellent example of what’s right — and what’s wrong — with modern American jurisprudence.

There were some real positives that resulted from the Sturgeon case. The state’s special status with regard to land and waterway management, as spelled out under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, was emphatically affirmed by the highest court in the land. Just as importantly, the court left in place the Katie John decision, which established federal subsistence fishing rights for Alaskans. Because the Sturgeon case dealt with jurisdiction over Alaska waterways, the court could have damaged or overturned that decision if it had made a decision that was unnecessarily broad in scope. But the Supreme Court wisely chose to tailor its decision narrowly enough to not disturb the Katie John precedent, preserving the rights of moose hunters and subsistence fishermen alike. Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the decision: In an era in which our national politics have become bitter and polarized, the court was able to agree unanimously on the interpretation of a case of great import to many Alaskans. Many aspects of America’s court system are working as designed, and Alaska will benefit from the Supreme Court’s well-reasoned decision.

But not all aspects of the case’s progress through the system were as positive. For one thing, seven and a half years is a long time. Fortunately, an inability to hunt on the upper reaches of the Nation River was not a matter of life and death for John Sturgeon. But many cases facing the court have far broader reach, and the failure to resolve them in a timely way has lasting effects. Sturgeon was lucky — he had backing from Alaska businessmen with the means to help him assert his rights, and the state eventually joined in the legal fight. But not all who fight for their rights have the time or the money to pursue cases for years in the federal courts. An unpleasant reality of our court system is that obtaining justice can require deep pockets. Alaskans should thank those who were willing to go to bat for their rights in the Sturgeon case — and reflect on how our system might better serve those without such resources.

The slow-moving nature of the judicial branch is partly by design — a quick ruling that had affirmed Sturgeon’s rights but overturned Katie John, for instance, would have been a disaster. But there are unnecessary aspects, such as the apparent disconnect between the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court on land-rights cases that saw the case passed back and forth twice between that court and the Supreme Court. That unproductive, time-wasting push-pull lends ammunition to those like Sen. Dan Sullivan who argue the Ninth Circuit has become unwieldy and out of touch with the unique circumstances of many of the states under its jurisdiction. Sen. Sullivan and others of a similar mind are correct; it’s time the Ninth Circuit be split to better represent the states under its purview.

The court got the Sturgeon case right, and it did so unanimously. But the issues of time and money needed to obtain justice are serious ones for Alaskans to contemplate, as is the need for the state’s federal circuit court to better understand its legal issues.

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