Mixed Messages on Preemption

By February 23, 2011Briefly Legal

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued an 8-0 opinion in Williamson v. Mazda, one the major cases dealing with federal preemption before the court this session.

The opinion written by Justice Breyer holds that a federal regulation that gave automakers a choice between installing a lap-belt only or a lap-belt and shoulder harness system for rear-seat passengers did not create federal preemption, and thus people hurt in accidents can sue manufacturers in state courts. As Justice Breyer wrote:

The question presented here is whether this federal regulation pre-empts a state tort suit that, if successful,would deny manufacturers a choice of belts for rear inner seats by imposing tort liability upon those who choose to install a simple lap belt. We conclude that providing manufacturers with this seatbelt choice is not a significant objective of the federal regulation. Consequently, the regulation does not pre-empt the state tort suit.

The National Association of Manufacturers had joined other business groups in an amicus brief on behalf of Mazda. The brief argued that traditional preemption analysis is a settled and vital component of our nationwide system of health, safety and economic regulation, rooted in the Constitution’s structure and the understanding of the Founders.

Congress should speak explicitly to endorse preemption when it means to. However, as the brief argued, it’s not always practical for Congress to legislate distinctly and in adequate detail as to when federal law should and should not displace state law, and it is therefore necessary for the courts to interpret conflict preemption expansively.

That argument did not win the day today.

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