As many readers have probably learned by now, on Wednesday the Supreme Court issued a decision in Riegel v. Medtronic, the medical device liability case that we've commented on previously and filed an amicus brief in. In an 8-1 opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Court sided with Medtronic's (and the Bush administration's) assertion that federal law preempts state lawsuits like the one undertaken by the Riegels. The Drum Major Institute's Tort Deform blog has been doing a great job of covering the decision, and links to some great analyses of its broader significance.
This is obviously not an ideal result for those concerned with state and local authority to enact community protections. At best it's a missed opportunity to make a clear ruling that could have assisted states in their leadership against global warming emissions, and overall its a definite blow to the federalist system, as CRC indicated in our statement reacting to the decision (quoted here in the LA Times). That said, the majority opinion can hopefully be limited to the facts of the case, and as plaintiffs' attorney Thomas Kline told the Philadelphia Inquirer, it might not even affect other state-based consumer torts such as prescription-drug liability cases.
The estimable Linda Greenhouse-- who also has a great article summarizing how another case decided yesterday, this one in favor of state authority, fits into the Roberts Court's evolving federalism debate (as seen in cases such as Mass v EPA)-- ably summarizes the differences between the Court's reasoning and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's strongly-worded dissent:
The medical device statute contains a pre-emption clause that bars states from imposing “any requirement” related to a medical device that is “different from, or in addition to” a federal requirement. The question of statutory interpretation at the heart of the case turned on what Congress meant by “any requirement.”
Justice Scalia said that state tort law, by imposing duties of care on product makers, amounted to such an additional requirement. He said the 1976 law “speaks clearly to the point at issue,” regardless of the federal government’s previous or current positions.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the solitary dissenter, said the court had misconstrued Congress’s intent in adding the pre-emption clause to the 1976 law. The purpose, she said, was to prevent individual states from imposing their own premarket approval process on new medical devices. Devices were not regulated under federal law at the time, and California and other states had stepped in to fill the vacuum by setting up their own regulatory systems.
That was all that Congress had in mind, Justice Ginsburg said, not “a radical curtailment of state common-law suits seeking compensation for injuries caused by defectively designed or labeled medical devices.” She said that Congress had passed the 1976 law “to protect consumer safety,” not to oust the states from “a domain historically occupied by state law.” The decision was at odds with the “central purpose” of the 1976 law, Justice Ginsburg added.
Ginsburg's dissent also argues convincingly that there is a "presumption against preemption" in our federalist system whereby state action in areas under their general purview should only be preempted "unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of the Congress." The Court's opinion unfortunately fails to maintain this balance, arriving at its decision by interpreting the law-- incorrectly in our opinion, and in that of its author, Senator Edward Kennedy, who has vowed a legislative fix-- to actually demonstrate a clear and manifest purpose that leads to preemption in this type of case.
At the end of the day, this decision should not give much pause to state leaders and advocates seeking to continue moving the nation toward policies that adequately respond to global warming. But it should certainly highlight the need for federal judges to properly apply constitutional and textual principles to maintain a system where state-based innovation-- critical historically as a laboratory of democracy, and in dire need for present-day problems affecting local communities-- can continue to thrive.