485 U. S. 589
April 20, 1988
An employee union wanted to use the University of California’s postage-free internal mail system. The union claimed that a California law gave them this right, but the University responded that federal law against postage-free delivery trumped this. There were some statutory exceptions to the federal law against private mail delivery, such as the ‘letters-of-the-carrier’ and the ‘private-hands’ ones. The postal service itself said that these exceptions did not apply, but the union pressed forth its challenge undaunted.
The Court ruled 6-2 that the University should not carry the union mail (Kennedy did not participate). O’Connor first looked at the ‘letters-of-the-carrier’ exception, which said that entirely internal mail was exempt from the US postal service. Because the union was not in fact a part of the University, the mail was not entirely internal and the exception did not apply. Then there was the ‘private-hands’ exception, which said that mail could be delivered outside the postal service if there was no compensation for it. O’Connor said that non-monetary compensation such as business quid-pro-quos qualified as ‘compensation’ for this exception. Because carrying union letters could be seen as a way of currying the goodwill of the employee union, this exception did not apply either.
White, concurring in judgment, did not think the precise reach of the statutory exceptions was as clear as O’Connor thought, but was willing to give the harmonious interpretations of postal service Chevron deference. Stevens, joined by Marshall, dissented, and argued that the ‘private-hands’ exception applied. Looking through legislative history, and some earlier court cases, he concluded that the majority’s expansion of the term ‘compensation’ to include non-monetary goodwill could not be justified. Thus, the University was required to follow California law and carry union mail.
This is one of those preemption cases where the parties are caught between two crappy laws. The postal service’s ruthless attempt at monopoly is pretty silly, but California’s demand that universities deliver union mail free of charge is even worse. In any event, White had the most legally persuasive opinion. This was a simple Chevron case that the majority and dissent both made much harder than it needed to be.