The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that states may regulate gasoline prices and profits.
The 8-0 ruling reinstated such controls imposed by the Puerto Rico Department of Consumer Affairs.Justice Antonin Scalia, in his opinion for the court, said the absence of specific federal legislation on gasoline regulation leaves the states free to adopt such rules.
Scalia rejected oil industry arguments that Congress, by deregulating gasoline prices, mandated a free market in petroleum products.
There may be a "general congressional desire" favoring the free market, Scalia said.
"But unenacted approval, beliefs and desires are not laws," he said. "Without a text that can ... plausibly be interpreted as prescribing federal pre-emption (of state power) it is impossible to find that a free market was mandated by federal law."
While Tuesday's ruling directly involves Puerto Rico, a commonwealth rather than a state, the court said the decision affects all states. The island commonwealth is exercising the equivalent of state power, Scalia said.
The ruling overturns a 1986 decision by a federal appeals court here that said Congress intended to bar state regulation of the oil industry when it lifted controls on gasoline effective in 1981.
The federal government was authorized by Congress in 1970 to place controls on petroleum products in an effort to curb inflation. That law expired in 1973.
Congress, in the wake of an Arab oil embargo, then enacted an emergency law placing extensive price and allocation controls on gasoline.
That was followed in 1975 by a new law aimed at promoting oil conservation. The 1975 law was amended later to provide for gradual deregulation.
In other action, the court:
Ruled that the government's planned development of part of the Six Rivers National Forest in California does not violate Indians' religious rights.
The court's dissenters said the ruling "leaves Native Americans with absolutely no constitutional protection from perhaps the gravest threat to their religious practices."
Made it easier for creditors to recover debts owed by dead people.
The justices, voting 8-1, revived a claim by an Oklahoma bill collection agency that said it unfairly was denied the chance to recover part of a hospital bill owed by a former patient who died.
Ruled against a group of Minnesota welfare recipients who said they were given inadequate notice about a change in their eligibility for federal benefits.