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Washington loses bid to broaden workers’ comp for nuclear waste employees

All nine justices sided with the federal government against the Evergreen State’s attempt to give nuclear waste workers greater access to benefits.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a unanimous decision on Tuesday, the Supreme Court found that a Washington state law aimed at protecting nuclear waste workers is unconstitutional and discriminates against the government. 

“We conclude that the state law discriminates against the Federal Government and falls outside the scope of Congress’ waiver,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. “We therefore hold that the law is unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause.” 

The government built a nuclear facility near Hanford, Washington, to create weapons-grade plutonium during World War II and the Cold War. For the last 30 years, the Evergreen State has been working on the burdensome cleanup of the now decommissioned facility. Unfortunately, some workers from the facility have experienced illnesses that can be traced back to their work at the cleanup site. 

In 2018, Washington created a law to make it easier for workers to get compensation for their injuries. HB 1723 amended the state workers’ compensation law, forcing the government to prove their illness did not come from their work instead of workers having to prove they became sick because of their jobs. 

When the justices heard oral arguments in April, they were asked if intergovernmental immunity can bar a state law that applies only to federal contract workers who are employed at a specified federal facility. 

While the government claimed the law is unconstitutional and violates the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, so far its efforts to block the law had been unsuccessful. If the law were to be allowed, the government argued it would cost the U.S. tens of millions of dollars annually during the 21st century. 

The case was complicated further when Washington’s governor signed Senate Bill 5890 only a month before the case was argued before the Supreme Court. The new bill gets rid of the portion the government is challenging, creating some disagreement over if the case should have been on the justices' docket in the first place. 

While Washington used the new bill to argue the case was moot, the high court disagreed because the government could recover money if the court ruled in its favor. 

“The United States asserts that, if we rule in its favor, it will either recoup or avoid paying between $17 million and $37 million in workers’ compensation claims that lower courts have awarded under the earlier law,” Breyer wrote. 

He continued, “It is not our practice to interpret statutes in the first instance, and we decline to do so here by deciding the retroactivity or breadth of Washington’s new law. Nor do we know how Washington’s state courts will resolve these questions. It is thus not ‘impossible’ that the United States will recover money if we rule in its favor, and this case is not moot.” 

Breyer said laws discriminate against the government if they single it out for less favorable treatment or regulate it unfairly. 

“On its face, the law applies only to a ‘person, including a contractor or subcontractor, who was engaged in the performance of work, either directly or indirectly, for the United States,’” Breyer wrote. “The law thereby explicitly treats federal workers differently than state or private workers. And, in doing so, the law imposes upon the Federal Government costs that state or private entities do not bear.” 

Since Congress has not told Washington it is allowed to use this regulation, the law violates the Constitution's supremacy clause, the justices found. 

“Because §3172 does not clearly and unambiguously waive the Government’s immunity from discriminatory state laws, Washington’s law is unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause,” Breyer wrote. 

The Department of Justice and Tera Heintz, deputy solicitor general for Washington, did not respond to requests for comment following the ruling. 

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