SCOTUS Rules Unanimously: Federal Government Has Exclusive Control of Outer Continental Shelf

Outer Continental Shelf
SCOTT HEPPELL/AFP/Getty Images

The United States Supreme Court announced on Monday a unanimous 9-0 decision ruling in favor of the company operating an offshore drilling platform and against Brian Newton, who argued that the company should be subject to work and wage laws of the closest state, California.

The opinion cited both the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and Fair Labor Standards Act to conclude that like other “federal enclaves” in the United States such as national parks and military bases, the OCS is strictly under federal jurisdiction, and state law could not be a “surrogate” for federal law unless there were an unfilled “gap” in that law.

Newton, the opinion explained, worked 14-day shifts, 12-hours-a-day on duty and 12-hours-a-day on standby. He was not allowed to leave the rig while on standby. The court noted that Newton was “paid well above California and federal minimum wages.”

“Newton claimed that California’s minimum wage and overtime laws required Parker to compensate him for the time he spent on standby,” the opinion said.

The syllabus of the case stated: 

The Court’s pre-OCSLA decisions made clear that federal law controlled the OCS in every respect, and the OCSLA reaffirmed that role. Taken together, the OCSLA’s provisions convincingly show that state laws can be “applicable and not inconsistent” with federal law under §1333(a)(2)(A) only if federal law does not address the relevant issue. The OCSLA makes apparent “that federal law is ‘exclusive’ . . . and that state law is adopted only as surrogate federal law.

Newton’s interpretation—that the choice-of-law question on the OCS is the same as it would be in an adjacent State—would deprive much of the OCSLA of any import, violating the “‘cardinal principle’ of interpretation that courts ‘must give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute.’ ”

This Court’s interpretation is consistent with the federal-enclave model and the historical development of the statute.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the Court’s opinion on the case, which stated, in part: 

Although this is a close question of statutory interpretation, on the whole we find Parker’s approach more persuasive because “ ‘the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.’” Roberts v. Sea-Land Services, Inc., 566 U. S. 93, 101 (2012). That rule is particularly relevant here, as the terms “applicable” and “not inconsistent” are susceptible of interpretations that would deprive one term or the other of meaning. If Newton is right that “applicable” merely means relevant to the subject matter, then the word adds nothing to the statute, for an irrelevant law would never be “applicable” in that sense. 

In sum, the standard we adopt today is supported by the statute’s text, structure, and history, as well as our precedents. Under that standard, if a federal law addresses the issue at hand, then state law is not adopted as federal law.

The opinion builds on the precedent of federal law sovereignty and its distinct difference from state laws.

The case is Parker Drilling Management Services v. Newton, No. 18-839 in the Supreme Court of the United States.

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