Hillman v. Maretta
569 U.S. ___ (2013)

Annotate this Case

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 11–1221

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JACQUELINE HILLMAN, PETITIONER v. JUDY A. MARETTA

on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of virginia

[June 3, 2013]

     Justice Thomas, concurring in the judgment.

     The Court correctly concludes that §20–111.1(D) of the Virginia Code (Section D) is pre-empted by the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act of 1954 (FEGLIA), 5 U. S. C. §8701 et seq. But I cannot join the “purposes and objectives” framework that the majority uses to reach this conclusion. Ante, at 6. That framework is an illegitimate basis for finding the pre-emption of state law, see Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U. S. 555, 583 (2009) (Thomas, J., concurring in judgment), and is entirely unnecessary to the result in this case, because the ordinary meanings of FEGLIA and Section D directly conflict. Accordingly, I concur only in the judgment.

     The Supremacy Clause establishes that federal law “shall be the supreme Law of the Land . . . any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary nothwithstanding.” Art. VI, cl. 2. “Where state and fed-eral law ‘directly conflict,’ state law must give way.” PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 11) (quoting Wyeth, 555 U. S., at 583). As I have noted before, courts assessing whether state and federal law conflict should not engage in a freewheeling inquiry into whether state law undermines supposed federal purposes and ob-jectives. Id., at 588. Such an approach looks beyond the text of enacted federal law and thereby permits the Fed- eral Government to displace state law without satisfying an essential precondition to pre-emption, namely, the Bi-cameral and Presentment Clause. Id., at 586–587. Pre-emption analysis should, therefore, instead hew closely to the text and structure of the provisions at issue, and a court should find pre-emption only when the “ ‘ordinary meaning’ ” of duly enacted federal law “effectively repeal[s] contrary state law.” PLIVA, supra, at ___–___ (slip op., at 14–15, 17).

     Applying these principles, it is clear that the ordinary meaning of FEGLIA directly conflicts with Section D. FEGLIA provides that life insurance benefits are paid according to a particular “order of precedence.” 5 U. S. C. §8705(a); see also 5 CFR §870.801(a) (2013). The benefits are distributed first to “the beneficiary or beneficiaries designated by the employee in a signed and witnessed writing received before death.” 5 U. S. C. §8705(a). If the insured fails to designate a beneficiary, FEGLIA provides a specific order in which benefits must be distributed: next to “the widow or widower of the employee”; absent a widow or widower, to “the child or children of the employee and descendants of [the] deceased children”; and so on. Ibid.; ante, at 2. The insured has the right to change his beneficiary designation “at any time without the knowledge or consent of the previous beneficiary,” and “[t]his right cannot be waived or restricted.” 5 CFR §870.802(f).

     Section D directly conflicts with this statutory scheme, because it nullifies the insured’s statutory right to designate a beneficiary. The right to designate a beneficiary encompasses a corresponding right in the named beneficiary not only to receive the proceeds, but also to retain them. Indeed, the “right” to designate a beneficiary—as well as the term “beneficiary” itself—would be meaningless if the only effect of a designation were to saddle the nominal beneficiary with liability under state law for the full value of the proceeds. But Section D accomplishes exactly that: It transforms the designated beneficiary into a defendant in state court, a defendant who is now liable to the individual the State has designated as the true beneficiary. While Hillman does not insist that the in-surer should have mailed the check to her (as opposed to Maretta, the designated beneficiary), Section D requires, in effect, this very result. See ante, at 10 (“[Section D] displaces the beneficiary selected by the insured in accordance with FEGLIA and places someone else in her stead”). If the right to designate a beneficiary means anything, we must conclude that Section D directly conflicts with FEGLIA’s order of precedence.

     The direct conflict between Section D and FEGLIA is also evident in the fact that Section D’s only function is to accomplish what Section A would have achieved, had Section A not been pre-empted. Section A provides that,

“upon the entry of a decree of annulment or divorce from the bond of matrimony . . . , any revocable beneficiary designation contained in a then existing written contract owned by one party that provides for the payment of any death benefit to the other party is revoked. A death benefit prevented from passing to a former spouse by this section shall be paid as if the former spouse had predeceased the decedent.” Va. Code Ann. §20–111.1(A) (Lexis Cum. Supp. 2012).

Both parties agree that FEGLIA pre-empts this provision. Brief for Petitioner 4–5; Brief for Respondent 2; see also 283 Va. 34, 52, 722 S. E. 2d 32, 35 (2012). And for good reason: if an insured has designated his former spouse as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, Section A purports to “revok[e]” that designation in the event of divorce or annulment. By purporting to so alter FEGLIA’s statutory order of precedence, Section A is clearly pre-empted by federal law. Tellingly, it is precisely in this context—and only in this context—that Section D operates. See §20–111.1(D). Of course, Section D does not preclude the direct payment of benefits to the designated beneficiary; however, it accomplishes the same prohibited result by transforming the designated party into little more than a passthrough for the true beneficiary. This cannot be squared with FEGLIA. Consequently, Section D must yield.

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     For these reasons, I agree with the Court’s conclusion that Section D is pre-empted and, therefore, concur in the judgment.

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