Washington — In the midst of a national trend to cut back regulations, the US Supreme Court this week firmly backed federal power to regulate strip mining. Ruling 9 to 0 on two seperate challenges to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the high court reinforced congressional authority to protect the environment from the impact of strip mining. Both the State of Indiana and strip miners in Virginia had charged that the law imposed unconstitutional restrictions.
The cases fit the pattern of recent court decisions that have backed federal over state authority, especially in commerce cases.
Even as the Supreme Court prepared to hand down its ruling, Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt was moving June 12 to decentralize -- and severely impair , according to critics -- federal oversight of state strip-mining regulation. Mr. Watt ordered five regional offices closed, beginning with the one in Denver as of the end of August.
Prior to that action, the interior secretary had been warned by a Democratic-controlled House subcommittee not to use any money from the fiscal 1982 federal budget (effective Oct. 1) to close or move the Denver office, which is seen a key source of expertise and direction in regulation of Western strip mines.
Enviromentalists are said to be incensed at Watt's recent moves to alter the impact of the 1977 strip-mining act -- which, Justice Thurgood Marshall said, is aimed at halting water pollution, erosion, floods, and loss of wildlife from strip mines. In writing for the court in the Virginia case, he said that such a "rational" basis makes the law constitutional.
The 1977 act sets strict national standards for strip mining, requiring companies to restore the land essentially to its original appearance when they have removed the coal. Mining interest charge that restoring the land in steep slopes is too expensive.
Indiana charged that the law usurps state authority by requiring that prime farm land be restored, complete with topsoil, after mining. It also challenged a prohibition against strip mines near homes, schools, churches, and other sites.
But the court refused to weaken the federal hand in the cases. Justice Marshall cited a "long-established precedent" that gives Congress power over states in regulating private activity.
In other Supreme Court action June 15, a constitutional challenge to overcrowding in prisons lost by an 8-to-1 decision. The majority ruled that crowding two prisoners into a cell built for one does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
In the case, inmates Kelly Chapman and Richard Jaworski were put together in a Ohio prison cell that was only 63 feet square. Several authorities, including the Us Department of Justice, set a minimum standard of 60 square feet per person.
An appeals court found that the double- celling in a cell designed for one prisoner constituted cruel treatment, but the Supreme Court said that overcrowding alone was not unconstitutional.
"To the extent that such conditions are restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society," said Justice Lewis F. Powell for the majority.
Justice Marshall, the only dissenter, called the prison "overcrowded, unhealthful, and dangerous." Each prisoner should have at least 50 square feet of living space,he said, comparing the space to an "area smaller than that occupied by a good-sized automobile."
Marshall chided the court for abandoning its role in correcting conditions which legislators refuse to correct.