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Preemption-Mania at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court released five opinions today, four of which in one way or another deal with federal-state preemption.  Three of the decisions involve classic preemption cases, i.e. whether a statute enacted by Congress overrides a conflicting state statute or common law remedy.  In Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, the Court unanimously held that a Maine law prohibiting Internet tobacco sales to minors was preempted by federal law that prohibits states from regulating prices, routes or services of shipping companies.  The Maine law directly conflicted with federal law because it would have restricted transportation companies from delivering tobacco products directly to consumers.  In Preston v. Ferrer (which involved TV celebrity judge Alex Ferrer), the Court, in an 8-1 ruling, found that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) compelled arbitration of Ferrer's contract with his talent agent, and preempted a California law that required an administrative hearing prior to arbitration.  Only Justice Thomas dissented, reiterating his previously stated opinion that the FAA does not apply to state court proceedings.  Finally, in Riegel v. Medtronic, the Court, in an 8-1 ruling found that the Medical Device Amendments (MDA) of 1976 which created a scheme of federal safety oversight for medical devices, preempted state common law tort claims against the device manufacturer.  Here, Justice Ginsburg dissented, arguing that Congress never intended a "radical curtailment" of state common law claims when it enacted the MDA. 

The Court's fourth decision, Danforth v. Minnesota isn't technically a preemption case because it doesn't involve a conflict between federal and state statutes.  However, Danforth fits with the preemption theme, because it addresses a state-federal conflicts question:  whether the U.S. Supreme Court or the states have the final word on whether a Supreme Court decision in a criminal matter has retroactive effect. In Danforth, a 7-2 majority held that states are free to make the benefits of Supreme Court decisions apply retroactively, even if the Supreme Court itself has ruled they are not retroactive under federal law.  The majority's decision did not sit well with Roberts and Kennedy, both of whom dissented, asserting that the decision is "contrary to the Supremacy Cause and the Framers' decision to vest in "one supreme court" the responsibility and authority to ensure the uniformity of federal law.  (See SCOTUS Blog for more discussion.)

Bottom line: The Court has no problem restricting a state's power when a Congress so mandates by statute.  But with the exception of Roberts and Kennedy, the Court is reluctant to force states to abide by federal rules on retroactivity that are judicially created -- even by the Court itself.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 20, 2008 at 04:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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