Justice Thomas a ‘Surprising Ally’ for Progressives in Decision Allowing Lap Belt Suit


ABA Journal
Justice Thomas a ‘Surprising Ally’ for Progressives in Decision Allowing Lap Belt Suit
By Debra Cassens Weiss
February 24, 2011


A concurrence yesterday by Justice Clarence Thomas shows him to be “a surprising ally” for progressive interests, according to the chief counsel for a liberal constitutional group.

Thomas concurred yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a lawsuit targeting Mazda for providing lap-only belts was not pre-empted by federal regulations allowing such restraints. Writing for the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Text and History blog, the group’s chief counsel, Elizabeth Wydra, says Thomas’ concurrence “explains how the Constitution establishes a system of federalism that preserves the right of states to protect the health and safety of their citizens.”

The majority opinion (PDF) by Justice Stephen G. Breyer found there was no pre-emption because the seat-belt regulation was not intended to give automakers a choice between lap belts and shoulder belts. Rather, regulators appeared to be motivated by concerns about the economic costs of requiring shoulder belts for rear inner seats and by concerns about “entry and exit problems” in back seats.

Thomas wrote that the savings clause in the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act allows state common law to establish higher standards than the ones imposed by the federal regulation. He argued that the plain text of the law was all that was needed to resolve the case, and the court should not have engaged in “free-ranging speculation about what the purposes of the [regulation] must have been.”

The New York Times and the Washington Post also noted Thomas’ concurrence, which said the Supreme Court had decided a similar case differently in 2000 because of its analysis of the regulators’ intent. “The dispositive difference between this case and Geier [v. American Honda Motor Co.]—indeed, the only difference—is the majority’s ‘psychoanalysis’ of the regulators,” Thomas wrote.

The Constitutional Accountability Center had supported the tort plaintiffs in an amicus brief (PDF)