Tis Better to Be Regulated by One Gorilla than by Fifty Monkeys

When Congress lawfully exercises its constitutional powers to regulate a particular aspect of interstate commerce, states cannot also regulate in that area.  This anodyne principle, arising from the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, is known as preemption.  Today, in its last public action of 2008 and its first 5-4 decision of the term, the Supreme Court violated that principle in a case involving cigarette labeling, Altria v. Good.  The Court erroneously determined that the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act does not preempt a suit for fraudulent labeling under state law. 

While the Act expressly covers labeling and advertising “with respect to any relationship between smoking and health,” Justice Stevens’s opinion somehow finds that it does not cover smoking- and health-related suits predicated on the general duty not to deceive.  (The Court was not asked to address, and did not address, the threshold question of whether the Act infringes on the free speech rights of advertisers.) 

As Justice Thomas points out in dissent, the majority has created an unworkable rule that depends on how one frames “the legal duty that is the predicate of the common-law damages action” rather than the text of the federal statute at issue.  Thus, not only will cigarette manufacturers who dutifully comply with federal law now face countless suits under countless state laws, but their fates in those suits will hinge on the creativity of counsel and the gullibility of judges.  And of course, this type of reasoning can easily be extended to circumvent preemption in other regulatory fields, including this term’s eagerly awaited FDA case, Wyeth v. Levine.