The Democratic assault on the preemption doctrine has taken its next step with the release last week by the White House of a Presidential memorandum which restricts federal agency statements on preemption and directs those agencies to review preemption pronouncements made in the past decade under the Bush Administration.
Ironically, the directive ostensibly rests on the grounds of States rights: noting State law and national law often operate concurrently to provide independent safeguards for the public, and that throughout our history, State and local governments have frequently protected health, safety, and the environment more aggressively than has the national government. “An understanding of the important role of State governments in our Federal system is reflected in longstanding practices by executive departments and agencies, which have shown respect for the traditional prerogatives of the States,” argues the memorandum.
The memorandum comes two months after the Supreme Court’s ruling on preemption in the context of drugs in Wyeth v. Levine, and concurrently with democratic efforts in Congress to overturn Medtronic v. Riegel in the medical device context.
The memorandum sets for the general policy of the new Administration that preemption of State law by executive departments and agencies should be undertaken only with full consideration of the “legitimate prerogatives of the States and with a sufficient legal basis for preemption.” Specifically, it orders that agencies should not include in regulatory preambles statements that the department intends to preempt State law through the regulation except where preemption provisions are also included in the codified regulation. Also, agencies should not include preemption provisions in codified regulations except where such provisions would be justified under the (presumably re-assessed) legal principles governing preemption.
Finally, departments should review regulations issued within the past 10 years that contain statements in regulatory preambles or codified provisions intended by the agency to preempt State law, in order to decide whether such statements or provisions are justified under (again, re-interpreted) applicable legal principles governing preemption. Where the head of a department or agency determines that a regulatory statement of preemption or codified regulatory provision cannot be so justified, the head of that department or agency should initiate appropriate action, which may include amendment of the relevant regulation.
The memorandum is a political statement as much as a legal document, and is consistent with President’s Obama’s comments while a candidate. As it eventually evolves into specific agency statements and policy, it promises to create a hodge-podge regulatory quilt, under which business will struggle with product safety decisions which will comply with federal, national standards, be upheld in some state jurisdictions, but nevertheless be subject to review by lay juries in others.