July 17, 2017:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that where an employer fired an employee for her off-site use of marijuana, the employee may sue for handicap discrimination. The name of the case is Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, and you can read it by clicking here. The decision does not sit easily with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, to put it mildly.
The case involves the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law, chapter 151B. Under 151B an employee who is a “qualified handicapped person” may seek “reasonable accommodations.” In this case, the employee asked for one particular accommodation, namely marijuana use. Faced with this request the employer demurred, arguing that marijuana use is a crime and, therefore, inherently unreasonable.
Certainly, in 2012 Massachusetts enacted the medical marijuana act. But the use of marijuana is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which Congress enacted and has not repealed. The SJC referred to this contradiction between state and federal law as an “unusual backdrop.” That is one way of putting it, I suppose.
Now, admittedly I am no judge and nobody asked me, but my starting point in resolving the contradiction would have been clause 2 of article VI of the Constitution of the United States, which provides:
This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof… shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.
The clause means that a law passed by Congress becomes part of “the supreme law of the land.” That is why we call it the Supremacy Clause. Lest there be any doubt, the clause includes the proviso “any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.” If a State does not like a Federal law, the judges of that State may not repeal it. Nullification is not an option. I believe we fought a war about this.
However, the SJC held that respect for the supreme law of the land must take second seat to something else, something not referred to in the Constitution of the United States:
“To declare an accommodation for medical marijuana to be per se unreasonable out of respect for the Federal law would not be respectful of the recognition of Massachusetts voters, shared by the legislatures or voters in the vast majority of States, that marijuana has an accepted medical use for some patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions.”
That is a very difficult sentence for me to understand. Don’t get me wrong: I can read English, so I understand the words. I just do not understand how (with all due respect to the SJC) one can square that sentence with the plain language of the Supremacy Clause or with the body of precedent on the subject of field preemption.
After all, the Supremacy Clause is a straightforward answer to this simple question: Where there is a clear conflict between a federal law and a subsequent state law, which prevails? Federal law, says he Supremacy Clause. State law, says the SJC. Why? Because it is better to ignore the federal law than fail to be “respectful” of the voters.
Perhaps this is one of those instances where the framers and ratifiers tacked on an exception using invisible ink, so that to the cognoscenti the Supremacy Clause actually concludes with the words “and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding, except when they decide not to be.” Hold your copy of the Constitution up close, then at arms’ length. If that doesn’t work, try holding it up to the light.