486 U. S. 174
May 23, 1988
At a federal government owned nuclear power plant, an employee got injured due to an unsafe scaffolding that violated Ohio regulations. Although established preemption law exempted federally owned power plants from all state regulations, the employee wanted a worker’s compensation bonus that Ohio provided when the injury was directly caused by violation of a state regulation. The question was whether this bonus payment was preempted too.
The Court ruled 6-2 that this bonus was not preempted (Kennedy did not participate). Marshall first brushed aside a stupid justiciability challenge which questioned whether the lower court ruling was final. Turning to the merits, Marshall admitted that all state regulation whatsoever was preempted unless Congress gave “clear and unambiguous” blessing to extra state regulation. In this case, Congress did, in the form of a law that allowed all worker’s compensation schemes to continue unabated. Marshall stressed that different states had all kinds of zany and strange worker’s compensation rules at the time this law was passed. Ohio’s bonus for a workplace violating a regulation certainly qualified, even if the underlying safety regulation itself could not be imposed against the power plant.
White, joined by O’Connor, dissented. He saw the Ohio bonus rule as essentially a backdoor to the state imposing all its power plant regulations. He did not want the states doing indirectly what they could not do directly. Although there was the federal statute which allowed worker’s compensation schemes to operate on federal property, White did not think it unambiguously extended to weird rules like the Ohio bonus one. Far more illustrative of Congressional intent, he thought, was that body’s continuing reluctance to subject federally owned plants to direct state safety regulation.
Cases like this are the reason why being a Supreme Court Justice is hard. There’s really no one good answer here. Both Marshall and White have perfectly reasonable and defensible arguments. I’m at a loss to say which is more right, and which is more wrong.