United States v. Washington

Justia Summary

Washington enacted a workers’ compensation law that applied only to Hanford site workers who were “engaged in the performance of work, either directly or indirectly, for the United States.” The Hanford site, once used to produce nuclear weapons, is undergoing decontamination. Most workers involved in the cleanup process are employed by private companies under contract with the federal government; a few are state employees, private employees, and federal employees. As compared to Washington’s general workers’ compensation scheme, the law made it easier for Hanford's federal contract workers to establish entitlement to workers’ compensation, thus increasing workers’ compensation costs for the federal government. The Ninth Circuit upheld the law as within the scope of a federal waiver of immunity, 40 U.S.C. 3172.

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. Washington’s law facially discriminates against the federal government and its contractors; section 3172 does not clearly and unambiguously waive immunity from discriminatory state laws, so Washington’s law is unconstitutional. While section 3172(a) says that “[t]he state authority charged with enforcing and requiring compliance with the state workers’ compensation laws . . . may apply [those] laws to all land and premises in the State which the Federal Government owns,” and “to all projects, buildings, constructions, improvements, and property in the State and belonging to the Government, in the same way, and to the same extent as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State,” the waiver does not “clear[ly] and unambiguous[ly]” authorize a state to enact a discriminatory law that facially singles out the federal government for unfavorable treatment.

The Court held that the case was not moot, despite Washington’s enactment of a new statute that, arguably, applies retroactively.