California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement v. Dillingham Construction (95-789), 519 U.S. 316 (1997)
[ Scalia ]
[ Thomas ]
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No. 95-789


on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

[February 18, 1997]

Justice Scalia , with whom Justice Ginsburg joins, Since ERISA was enacted in 1974, this Court has accepted certiorari in, and decided, no less than 14 cases to resolve conflicts in the Courts of Appeals regarding ERISA pre-emption of various sorts of state law. [n.1] The rate of acceptance, moreover, has not diminished (we have taken two more ERISA pre-emption cases so far this Term), [n.2] suggesting that our prior decisions have not succeeded in bringing clarity to the law.

I join the Court's opinion today because it is a fair description of our prior case law, and a fair application of the more recent of that case law. Today's opinion is no more likely than our earlier ones, however, to bring clarity to this field--precisely because it does obeisance to all our prior cases, instead of acknowledging that the criteria set forth in some of them have in effect been abandoned. Our earlier cases sought to apply faithfully the statutory prescription that state laws are pre-empted "insofar as they . . . relate to any employee benefit plan." Hence the many statements, repeated today, to the effect that the ERISA pre-emption provision has a "broad scope," an "expansive sweep," is "broadly worded," "deliberately expansive," and "conspicuous for its breadth." Ante, at 6-7. But applying the "relate to" provision according to its terms was a project doomed to failure, since, as many a curbstone philosopher has observed, everything is related to everything else. Accord, New York State Conference of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans v. Travelers Ins. Co., 514 U. S. ___, ___ (1995) (slip op., at 8-9). The statutory text provides an illusory test, unless the Court is willing to decree a degree of pre-emption that no sensible person could have intended--which it is not.

I think it would greatly assist our function of clarifying the law if we simply acknowledged that our first take on this statute was wrong; that the "relate to" clause of the pre-emption provision is meant, not to set forth a test for pre-emption, but rather to identify the field in which ordinary field pre-emption applies--namely, the field of laws regulating "employee benefit plan[s] described in section 1003(a) of this title and not exempt under section 1003(b) of this title," 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). Our new approach to ERISA pre-emption is set forth in John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Harris Trust and Sav. Bank, 510 U.S. 86, 99 (1993): "we discern no solid basis for believing that Congress, when it designed ERISA, intended fundamentally to alter traditional pre-emption analysis." I think it accurately describes our current ERISA jurisprudence to say that we apply ordinary field pre-emption, and, of course, ordinary conflict pre-emption. See generally Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 248 (1984) (explaining general principles of field and conflict pre-emption); Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947) (field pre-emption); Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132, 142-143 (1963) (conflict pre-emption). Nothing more mysterious than that; and except as establishing that, "relates to" is irrelevant.


1 In addition to the case at bar, the Court has addressed the application of ERISA's pre-emption provision in the following cases: New York State Conference of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans v. Travelers Ins. Co., 514 U. S. ___ (1995); John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Harris Trust and Sav. Bank, 510 U.S. 86 (1993); District of Columbia v. Greater Washington Bd. of Trade, 506 U.S. 125 (1992); Ingersoll Rand Co. v. McClendon, 498 U.S. 133 (1990); FMC Corp. v. Holliday, 498 U.S. 52 (1990); Massachusetts v. Morash, 490 U.S. 107 (1989); Mackey v. Lanier Collection Agency & Service, Inc., 486 U.S. 825 (1988); Fort Halifax Packing Co. v. Coyne, 482 U.S. 1 (1987); Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58 (1987); Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41 (1987); Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724 (1985); Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85 (1983); and Alessi v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., 451 U.S. 504 (1981).

2 See Boggs v. Boggs, ___ U. S. ___ (1997); De Buono v. NYSA-ILA Medical and Clinical Services Fund, ___ U. S. ___ (1997).