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Endangered Species Act Survives Challenge at U.S. High Court

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to limit the reach of the Endangered Species Act, turning away an appeal by three farms challenging the protection of a 2 1/2-inch long Northern California fish called the delta smelt.

The justices today left intact a federal appeals court decision that upheld the law as a valid use of Congress’s constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce.

The rebuff marks the sixth time the nation’s highest court has refused to question the Endangered Species Act. The latest challenge to the law had the backing of property-rights advocates, a group of California water districts and trade organizations representing farms and small businesses.

The delta smelt lives in the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary in northern California. Protecting the fish has meant limiting the amount of water pumped to other parts of the state, including the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The delta smelt generally can’t live in water that is more than one-third sea water.

The farms, led by Stewart & Jasper Orchards, argued unsuccessfully that the delta smelt doesn’t have any commercial uses, putting it outside the scope of Congress’s authority. In rejecting that argument, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Endangered Species Act as a whole regulates interstate commerce.

The commerce clause is also at the center of the legal fight over President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul. The high court hasn’t taken up a commerce clause case since Chief Justice John Roberts took his seat in 2005.

The case is Stewart & Jasper Orchards v. Salazar, 10-1551.

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