The NCSL Blog


By State and Local Legal Center

In United States v. Washington the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that Washington state's workers compensation law, which makes it easier for federal contractors to receive unemployment compensation, violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. 

US Supreme CourtWashington state’s Hanford site was used to develop and produce nuclear weapons. The federal government is currently in the process of cleaning up the site. In 2018, Washington enacted a workers’ compensation law applicable to only Hanford site federal government contract workers. This law makes it easier for them to receive workers’ compensation compared to the state workers’ compensation regime.

The Supremacy Clause generally immunizes the federal government from state laws that directly regulate or discriminate against it. However, Congress can waive this immunity. It has waived immunity regarding state workers’ compensation laws insofar as a “state authority charged with enforcing . . . the state workers’ compensation laws . . . appl[ies] the laws” to land or projects “belonging to the [Federal] Government, in

the same way and to the same extent as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the state.”

Washington state argued its workers’ compensation law falls “within the scope of this congressional waiver.” In an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, with no dissents or concurrences, the Supreme Court disagreed.

The court first determined Washington state’s law discriminates against the federal government. “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.’ The law thereby explicitly treats federal workers differently than state or private workers.”

The law consequently violates the Supremacy Clause, Justice Breyer reasoned, unless Congress has consented to it by waiver. According to the court, “Congress has authorized regulation that would otherwise violate the Federal Government’s inter-governmental immunity ‘only when and to the extent there is a clear congressional mandate.’ ”

The Court found no such clear and unambiguous waiver of immunity in this case: “One can reasonably read the statute as containing a narrower waiver of immunity, namely, as only authorizing a state to extend its generally applicable state workers’ compensation laws to federal lands and projects within the state.” 

Washington state also argued that this case was moot because the legislature enacted a new workers’ compensation statute applicable to any “worker working at a radiological hazardous waste facility,” not only Hanford or federal government contractors. This new law Washington claims doesn’t discriminate against the federal government.

"The United States and Washington disagree if Washington wins this case whether the United States will be able to “recoup or avoid paying between $17 million and $37 million in workers’ compensation claims that lower courts have awarded under the earlier law.”

The court stated a case isn’t moot unless “it is impossible for [us] to grant any effectual relief.” The court concluded this case isn’t moot because “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.”

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.