(The Center Square) – The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday unanimously overturned a 2018 Washington law concerning workers’ compensation law as discriminatory against the federal government.
The law related to workers involved in the cleanup of the Hanford Site, a 586-square-mile nuclear facility in southeast Washington operated by the federal government from 1943 to 1987.
The court’s opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, found that the law discriminated against the federal government by making it easier for employees working for federal contractors to establish their entitlement to workers’ compensation.
Most workers involved in the cleanup were employed by private companies holding contracts with the federal government, though some state and federal employees were involved also.
By favoring the federal contractors in their pursuit of compensation, the law singled out the federal government for unfair treatment and increased workers’ comp costs it incurred the court held. By doing so, Washington violated the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives federal law precedence over state laws, preventing the states from regulating the federal government.
Lower courts had agreed with Washington’s argument that this law was protected under a “waiver of intergovernmental immunity as to all workers’ compensation laws on federal lands and projects.” The Supreme Court disagreed because no such waiver had been explicitly stated by Congress.
Of particular concern to the Supreme Court was a provision of the Washington law stating that a wide range of diseases suffered by any worker at the Hanford Site were presumed to have been caused by their work there. By that provision, it would be incumbent on the government to show that the illnesses had another plausible cause, such as tobacco use or a preexisting condition.
Washington Attorney Bob Ferguson reacted to the ruling immediately, noting that the state had passed an updated law this year, clarifying the issues found with the 2018 statute and ensuring that workers at Hanford and other radioactive waste sites would still be eligible for workers’ compensation for occupational health costs.
“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 in a statement. “Hanford workers, and all others working with dangerous radioactive waste, remain protected.”
Ferguson also noted that the 2022 law had not been challenged by the federal government.
In its decision, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that the federal government could recoup previously paid costs or avoid paying millions in new claims. However, the state maintains that the 2022 law is retroactive and will apply to claims filed under the preceding law.
The Hanford site produced the plutonium used in making the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, effectively ending World War II.