Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Power of Federal Agency to Set Workplace Rules

Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Power of Federal Agency to Set Workplace Rules
The Supreme Court in Washington on June 28, 2024. (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a legal challenge to the authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue workplace safety standards, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting and Justice Neil Gorsuch noting that he would have been willing to take up the case that is focused on paring back government power.

In a July 2 order list, the Supreme Court denied review of a lower court’s decision to reject a legal challenge brought by Allstates Refractory Contractors against the Labor Department, in a case that centers on whether Congress’s delegation of authority to OSHA to write workplace safety standards violates Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

The Ohio-based general industrial contracting company claimed in its lawsuit that when Congress granted OSHA sweeping authority to set “reasonably necessary or appropriate” safety standards, it did so in violation of the constitutional separation of powers principle.

The company argued that OSHA being granted the authority to set safety standards violated the nondelegation doctrine, which is the principle that Congress cannot delegate its power to legislate to other branches of government.

A lower court ruled against the company, concluding that the delegation of authority to OSHA met the so-called “intelligible principle” test set by the Supreme Court, which is the idea that the delegation must include clear standards and limits to prevent the arbitrary or unchecked exercise of power by the agency.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the lower court’s decision, leading the company to petition the Supreme Court for review, which was denied on July 2.

Justice Clarence dissented from the denial of certiorari, arguing in a written statement of dissent that the “standard this Court currently applies to determine whether Congress has impermissibly delegated legislative power largely abdicates our duty to enforce that prohibition.” He further argued that the “intelligible principle” test fails to adequately reinforce the U.S. Constitution’s allocation of legislative power.

Justice Gorsuch wrote that he “would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari” but did not elaborate further.

The Epoch Times has reached out for comment to the Department of Labor (DOL) and Allstates Refractory Contractors.

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The case stems from a $6,000 fine imposed on the Ohio company after a worker was injured on the job.

Allstates Refractory Contractors sued Julie A. Su, the acting U.S. Secretary of Labor, arguing that OSHA’s power to set safety standards violated the constitutional lawmaking authority of Congress and that employers do not have the duty to comply with the standards.

OSHA was granted that power in 1970 when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which was then signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

The Ohio company also argued in its legal challenge to the OSH Act that the safety standards it was being subjected to were overly burdensome and, in some cases, more dangerous than the company’s own policies on workplace safety.

A lower court ruled against the Ohio company with the 6th Circuit appeals court later upholding that decision.

“The district court concluded that the delegation provided an ‘intelligible principle’ and thus rejected Allstates’s challenge. We agree and now join our sister circuits in holding OSHA’s delegation to be constitutional,” the appeals court judges wrote in their Aug. 23, 2023 opinion.

The appellate judges upheld the lower court’s conclusion that the “reasonably necessary or appropriate” standard set by OSHA provided an “intelligible principle” to satisfy the nondelegation doctrine.

“In sum, the OSH Act provides an overarching framework to guide OSHA’s discretion, and the Act’s standards comfortably fall within those limits previously upheld by the Supreme Court. So the Act passes constitutional muster,” the majority 6th Circuit opinion reads.

One of the appellate judges dissented, arguing that federal courts have for decades “tiptoed” around the idea that an act of Congress could be rendered invalid as an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power and that the 6th Circuit’s majority opinion “continues the trend.”

“In my view, that streak should end today,” wrote Circuit Judge John Nalbandian.

Judge Nalbandian argued that, in ruling against the Ohio company, the courts had failed to adequately address the matter of whether Congress properly set guardrails on OSHA’s authority to set workplace rules.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the company raised a similar argument.

“Congress has given OSHA virtually no instruction on how to use this vast lawmaking authority,” reads the petition. “Instead, OSHA has ‘nearly unfettered discretion’ to make whatever workplace safety rules it wants for almost every company in America.”

The company argued that Congress’s delegation is “as unconstitutional as it is unparalleled among modern agencies.”

While the Supreme Court majority denied review, Justice Thomas echoed this argument in his dissent. He wrote that the power granted to OSHA extends to virtually every business in the United States.

“The agency claims authority to regulate everything from a power lawnmower’s design … to the level of ‘contact between trainers and whales at SeaWorld,'” he wrote.

“The Occupational Safety and Health Act may be the broadest delegation of power to an administrative agency found in the United States Code,” he wrote.

“If this far-reaching grant of authority does not impermissibly confer legislative power on an agency, it is hard to imagine what would,” he added.

From The Epoch Times