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Dynamic Duo: SCOTUS Decides Wos, Decker

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 20, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There are a few Supreme Court cases each term that become part of the collective consciousness: Last year, there were the healthcare and immigration cases. This year, there are the Voting Rights Act, same-sex marriage, and affirmative action cases.

These are the issues that people get excited about. These are the topics that people discuss around the dinner table. These are the captions that law geeks write on their legal pads in swirly letters and circle with hearts.

If these are the types of topics you were hoping to read about today, you are out of luck.

Wednesday, the Court issued decisions in Wos v. EMA and Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court's most famous swing vote, wrote both opinions.

Wos v. E.M.A. was a preemption appeal, challenging a North Carolina statute that requires that up to one-third of any damages recovered by a Medicaid beneficiary for a tortious injury be paid to the state to reimburse it for payments the state made for medical treatment connected to the injury. In the case, appellee E.M.A. sued for "devastating injuries" incurred during her birth, which left her "severely disabled," The Associated Press reports. North Carolina spent nearly $2 million for her medical care, and claimed that it was due more than $900,000 of the family's $2.8 million malpractice settlement.

The Court disagreed in a 6-3 vote, concluded that the federal anti-lien provision preempts North Carolina's irrebuttable statutory presumption that one-third of a tort recovery is attributable to medical expenses.

In the second case, Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Court held in a 7-1 vote that the Clean Water Act (Act) and its implementing regulations do not require permits before channeled stormwater runoff from logging roads can be discharged into U.S. navigable waters. In siding with the loggers, the majority noted that the EPA itself had interpreted its regulation to exclude the type of stormwater discharges from logging roads at issue here from the permit requirement. Finding that the EPA's determination was a reasonable interpretation of its own regulation, the Court deferred to that interpretation.

Preemption? Deference to statutory interpretation? This may not be the stuff legal dreams are made of but it's definitely the stuff of good old every day practice.

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