479 U. S. 1
November 3, 1986
This was the very first ruling of the Rehnquist Court, which came into existence on September 26, 1986. It was also the very first ruling for Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who had taken his oath of office on the same day as Chief Justice William Rehnquist. As the October Term, 1986 began, the Court consisted of Rehnquist, Scalia, William Brennan, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, John Paul Stevens, and Sandra Day O’Connor. Generally speaking, Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Scalia were regarded as conservatives, Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens as liberals, and White and Powell as moderates.
In Rose, the Court ruled 8-1 that a provision in the Arkansas workers compensation law was unconstitutional. A police officer was killed in the line of duty, and his widow sought to obtain monetary benefits under both federal and state law. The federal law gave her $50,000 as compensation for her husband’s death. The state law purported to subtract the amount of the federal award from the state award that she would be paid. Rose took the matter to court, because the federal law said that its money award was supposed to be “in addition to any other benefit… from any other source.”
Under the supremacy clause of the US Constitution, when a federal law and a state law conflict, the state law gives way. The Supreme Court agreed with Rose that the two laws were in plain conflict. By subtracting $50,000 from her state award, the Arkansas law thwarted the text of the federal law. Thus, the state law was held unconstitutional.
The opinion was per curiam, and the decision was made without oral argument. I can understand why – Arkansas really didn’t have a leg to stand on. The only dissent came from Justice Marshall, who objected to the Court rendering a decision without giving both parties a chance to offer arguments. Justice Marshall consistently dissented on this basis.