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Federal Rules Beat State Laws in High Court Rulings

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Federal Rules Beat State Laws in High Court Rulings


Federal Rules Beat State Laws in High Court Rulings

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The Supreme Court handed American business some good news today. The court ruled in several cases that broad language in some federal statutes invalidates state tort laws and health and safety laws, whether that was Congress' intent or not. The votes were all either unanimous or eight-to-one.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The doctrine is called preemption. Yes, it does sound boring, but it has enormous practical consequences.

Preemption means that under the Constitution, Congress may enact federal statutes that give the regulatory role entirely to the federal government and bar the states from acting.

Exhibit A today is the federal law giving the Food and Drug Administration the sole power to regulate medical devices. The statute was enacted after the Dalkon Shield, and intrauterine birth control device, harmed thousands of women, spurring thousands of lawsuits and a patchwork quilt of state laws aimed at regulating such devices.

Congress, then, passed the Medical Device Act to ensure greater safety on a national basis and to get states out of the business of issuing a host of different regulations.

Until today, though, people claiming they were harmed by a device could still sue in state courts. Today, the Supreme Court, by and eight-to-one vote, ruled that by and large, such lawsuits are also barred by federal law because they, too, amount to regulation.

The court's ruling came in the case of a New York man who had sustained serious injury when a catheter ruptured during a procedure to unblock the arteries to his heart.

Today, the Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit because the device had been pre-approved as safe and effective by the FDA. And the court said that under the broad language of the Medical Device Act, that pre-approval effectively insulates manufacturers from private lawsuits.

Exhibit B in today's roster of cases was a Maine law aimed at preventing teenagers from ordering cigarettes online by barring delivery of any package from a tobacco company to anyone who cannot produce proof of age and identity.

Private motor carriers like UPS said they should not be forced by the states to enact costly procedures for handling the packages. The delivery companies argued that the federal law deregulating the trucking industry forbid the states to enact laws on trucking price, routes or services.

Maine and other states contended they still have the right to regulate in the name of health and safety, but the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed.

And exhibit C today was a case involving Judge Alex of "TV Fame."

Unidentified Man: Judge Alex.

TOTENBERG: Judge Alex Ferrer and his agent are in a money dispute and the legal question is whether state or federal law applies. The Supreme Court, by an eight-to-one vote, said federal law requiring arbitration in a contract dispute like this is what counts, not California law, allowing a talent-agent dispute to go to the state labor commission.

Supreme Court advocate Tom Goldstein, who teaches at Stanford and Harvard, observes that the subject matter of these cases may be very different, medical devices, cigarettes and arbitration…

Professor TOM GOLDSTEIN (Faculty, Stanford and Harvard Law Schools): But they all have one common theme, and that is the federal government's rules prevail over those of the states. And they articulate that theme by very, very broad majorities with conservatives and liberals joined together.

TOTENBERG: For three decades, the business community has been fighting to get rid of state lawsuits and state regulations, arguing that 50 different sets of state laws are impossible to deal with and that private law suits are just another form of state regulation.

So, as Goldstein observes…

Prof. GOLDSTEIN: These kinds of decisions are big wins for the business community, particularly today when the Bush administration is more laissez faire and doesn't have a lot of federal regulations that are being issued, for example, involving medical devices.

TOTENBERG: Caitlin Halligan, who until last year served as chief appellate advocate for the state of New York, agrees.

Ms. CAITLIN HALLIGAN (Former Chief Appellate Advocate, New York): I think you might well look at these cases and ask whether or not the court has effectively shrugged its shoulders and said we're done looking so closely at these issues.

TOTENBERG: Or as Harvard law professor Charles Fried says, if you don't like today's decisions…

Professor CHARLES FRIED (Law, Harvard Law School): The answer is write your congressmen, because Congress has used those words. And unanimous courts here, liberals and conservatives, have said, we look at these words and they say they preempt.

TOTENBERG: Getting Congress to give back some power to the states, however, may be easier said than done, especially since big money will oppose that.

For state officials, today's rulings were dispiriting. Said one, I feel like I'm being buried with preemption claims on everything from labor questions to bank regulation.

A quick check of upcoming cases shows that in just a few weeks, for instance, the airline industry will be in federal court, asking for the invalidation of a New York state law requiring food, water and toilets for passengers held for more than three hours on the runway.

The airline industry contends the state law is preempted by various federal laws.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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