Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer

Supreme Court invalidates Washington state workers’ comp law affecting federal nuclear cleanup site: High court reverses 9th Circuit decision

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The Supreme Court struck down a Washington state law that extended workers’ compensation benefits to employees at a decommissioned federal nuclear production facility where employees suffered exposure to radioactive waste, finding the statute discriminates against the federal government.

The ruling in United States v. Washington, court file 21-404, is a win for the Biden administration, which argued the state law intrudes on federal authority. Washington state had argued the case was moot because a new state law replaced the old one.

The new decision reverses a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which had sided with the state.

The unanimous decision (pdf) was written by Justice Stephen Breyer who will leave the court in the coming weeks. He will be replaced by Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was narrowly confirmed by the U.S. Senate on April 7.

Workers’ compensation laws and regulations provide employees regular cash benefits and reimbursement for medical treatment for diseases and injuries experienced while on the job.

This case is about whether the federal government has to continue paying the workers’ compensation claims of specific employees working for private federal contractors.

The constitutional doctrine known as intergovernmental immunity prevents states from taxing or regulating property or operations of the U.S. government, but Congress may waive this immunity. In 1936, a federal law waived federal immunity in connection with state workers’ compensation laws on federal land after the Supreme Court ruled states could not apply their workers’ compensation laws to federal facilities. The goal was to ensure non-federal workers involved in federal work would not be left without workers’ compensation coverage, in which case their only option for redress might be launching a civil lawsuit if they suffered a workplace injury or disease, according to a SCOTUSblog summary.

Since 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy has been cleaning up the Hanford Site, a 600-square-mile site along Washington’s Columbia River that made weapons-grade plutonium for the Manhattan Project, the nation’s nuclear program during World War II and the Cold War. The remediation project is expected to continue over the next six decades and involve around 400 department employees, along with another 10,000 contractors and subcontractors. The workers are at high risk of suffering diseases caused by workplace exposure to radioactivity and other toxins at the site.

In 2018, Washington state enacted HB 1723, creating a legal presumption that some medical conditions affecting workers at the Hanford Site are occupation-related diseases that can lead to workers’ compensation benefits. The statute came after reports emerged that site workers had become sickened but were denied workers’ compensation benefits because they were federal contractors.

In March of this year, the state attempted to placate federal authorities by expanding the presumption so it would cover all employees at all radiological waste sites in the Evergreen State. Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill, SB 5890, on March 11 and the state then argued that its action had rendered the case before the Supreme Court moot.

In the new decision, Breyer wrote that the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution “generally immunizes” the federal government against state laws “directly regulate or discriminate against it,” but Congress can allow such states law by waiving this constitutional immunity. Congress passed a statute waiving the federal government’s immunity “insofar as a ‘state authority charged with enforcing … the state workers’ compensation laws … [applies] the laws’ to land or projects ‘belonging to the [Federal] Government, in the same way and to the same extent as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State.’”

The issue here is whether the Washington workers’ compensation law is covered by the congressional waiver. According to Breyer, the state law applies only to workers at one federal facility in the state, “thus raising workers’ compensation costs for the Federal Government.”

“We conclude that the state law discriminates against the Federal Government and falls outside the scope of Congress’ waiver. We therefore hold that the law is unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause,” Breyer wrote. The case was remanded to the 9th Circuit “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, said in a press release that the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t matter because the new state law took effect in March.

“Because the legislature already fixed the issues the federal government raised, there is little practical impact in Washington as a result of this ruling,” Ferguson said. “Hanford workers, and all others working with dangerous radioactive waste, remain protected.”

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared June 21, 2022, in The Epoch Times.