03 June 2013

Bad Rule Still Good Law

In the case of Hillman v. Maretta decided today by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court followed a long line of cases holding the generally applicable state laws in the area of probate, property and divorce are pre-empted by federal laws governing particular assets that are incomplete and ill considered.

This particular case involved FEGLI(federal employee group life insurance) policies. Under the law of the State of Virginia, and of many other states, a divorce implicitly repeals a beneficiary designation in any kind of asset in favor of the ex-spouse unless reaffirmed after the divorce and prior to death. The federal law has no such provision, largely due to oversight, although one provision of the FEGLI law that was enacted in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the subject allows a divorce court to award FEGLI benefits to an ex-spouse if the decree so states and the order is filed with the federal government after the divorce and before the death. (Federal law has, as a matter of federal common law, implicitly read in a "slayer statute" with respect to FEGLI benefits expressly provided for in almost every state, but not expressly provided for in the federal law.)

The U.S. Supreme Court in prior cases held that the FEGLI statute pre-empts the generally applicable state law on inheritance in the case of divorce, and in this case held that a statute in Virginia (which is home to a great many federal employees because of its proximity to the Capitol), that tried to make an end run around this pre-emption by creating a tort lawsuit against an ex-spouse in the amount of FEGLI benefits that go to her (or him) as a result of federal pre-emption of state law in favor of the heirs is also pre-empted. It isn't too surprising that such a brazen attempt to circumvent federal pre-emption would be held invalid, although one could have hoped that resort to the maxim that artificial solutions are acceptable when they solve artificial problems might have won the day.

Similar conundrums arise in a great many ERISA cases, where a similar broad pre-emption of generally applicable state private law has been held to exist despite the fact that ERISA itself offers no meaningful replacement.

The result in almost all of these pre-emption cases is unjust - state legal systems have primary responsibility for these areas of law and do a better job.

Also, considering that Congress has no express power to regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance, or property rights and private law in general, apart from the interaction with their express powers to regulate other things (in these cases mostly interstate commerce and the compensation of federal employees), the existing precedents are a tone deaf way to handle regulation of these matters. There is no meaningful federal interest, other than mere administrative convenience which is almost always overstated (and in fact leads to the opposite in practice, overall), in excluding these assets from generally applicable state law.

(Another deep problem in a lot of these cases is the issue of whether the law of domicile that applies to probate assets, rather than the law selected by a contract of adhesion or the law of the asset holding institution should apply to non-probate transfers which isn't completely unrelated, but since state laws in general are better drafted than incomplete federal law treatments of the relevant issues, there is often little injustice associated with choosing the law of one state rather than another. Still, contractual choices of law made by parties with no real interest in the outcome other than overstated administrative convenience are also problematic in terms of "natural law" style justice in these cases.)

Congress is aware of the issues, as is the executive branch, but because these private law issues have no strong constituency, they rarely become a priority for Congress. Congress isn't particularly good at quality legislative drafting in private law areas that are outside its core expertise.

These are all cases where the crabbed reading of federal law contradicts any fair reading of a "natural law" result or a sensible federal common law precedent. But, the federal courts have been loathe to fashion federal common law in any non-constitutional context where it is not absolutely necessary and prefers not to call it that when it does.

These cases are a perfect example of the problems with a doctrine of legal positivism, i.e. the notion that law consists merely of enacted statutes and cases that is entirely created by authoritative legal bodies and does not exist apart from them and does not have a "natural law" component. It is particularly ironic that this arises in the case of federal law where "natural law" is expressly recognized as existing in the U.S. Constitution itself.

These cases also illustrate the benefits of federal allocations of responsibility for private law in countries like Canada and Germany that allocate more private law responsibility to the national government with state court administration handled locally.

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