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Wisconsin Pub. Intervenor v. Mortier, 501 U.S. 597 (1991)

Wisconsin Public Intervenor v. Mortier

No. 89-1905

Argued April 24, 1991

Decided June 21, 1991

501 U.S. 597


The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA or Act), 7 U.S.C. § 136 et seq., was primarily a pesticide licensing and labeling law until 1972, when it was transformed by Congress into a comprehensive regulatory statute. Among other things, the 1972 amendments significantly strengthened the preexisting registration and labeling standards, specified that FIFRA regulates pesticide use, as well as sales and labeling, and granted increased enforcement authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regarding state and local authorities, FIFRA, as amended, includes provisions requiring pesticide manufacturers to produce records for inspection "upon request of any officer or employee . . . of any State or political subdivision," § 136f(b); directing the EPA to cooperate with "any appropriate agency of any state or any political subdivision thereof . . . in securing uniformity of regulations," § 136t(b); and specifying that "[a] State" may regulate pesticide sale or use so long as such regulation does not permit a sale or use prohibited by the Act, § 136v(a). Pursuant to its statutory police power, petitioner town adopted an ordinance that, inter alia, requires a permit for certain applications of pesticides to private lands. After the town issued a decision unfavorable to respondent Mortier on his application for a permit to spray a portion of his land, he brought a declaratory judgment action in county court, claiming, among other things, that the ordinance was preempted by FIFRA. The court granted summary judgment for Mortier, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed, finding preemption on the ground that the Act's text and legislative history demonstrate a clearly manifest congressional intent to prohibit any regulation of pesticides by local governmental units.

Held: FIFRA does not preempt local governmental regulation of pesticide use. Pp. 501 U. S. 604-616.

(a) When considering preemption, this Court starts with the assumption that the States' historic powers are not superseded by federal law unless that is the clear and manifest purpose of Congress. That purpose may be expressed in the terms of the statute itself. Absent explicit preemptive language, congressional intent to supersede state law may nonetheless be implicit if, for example, the federal Act touches a field in which the federal interest is so dominant that the federal system will be

Page 501 U. S. 598

assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject. Even where Congress has not chosen to occupy a particular field, preemption may occur to the extent that state and federal law actually conflict, as when compliance with both is a physical impossibility, or when the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of Congress' purposes and objectives. Pp. 501 U. S. 604-605.

(b) FIFRA nowhere expressly supersedes local regulation. Neither the Act's language nor the legislative history relied on by the court below, whether read together or separately, suffices to establish preemption. The fact that § 136v(a) expressly refers only to "[a] State" as having the authority to regulate pesticide use, and the Act's failure to include political subdivisions in its § 136(aa) definition of "State," are wholly inadequate to demonstrate the requisite clear and manifest congressional intent. Mere silence is insufficient in this context. Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U. S. 218, 331 U. S. 230. And the exclusion of local governments cannot be inferred from the express authorization to "State[s]," because that term is not self-limiting; political subdivisions are merely subordinate components of the very entity the statute empowers. Cf., e.g., Sailors v. Board of Education of Kent County, 387 U. S. 105, 387 U. S. 108. Indeed, the more plausible reading of the express authorization leaves the allocation of regulatory authority to the absolute discretion of the States themselves, including the options of specific redelegation or leaving local regulation of pesticides in the hands of local authorities under existing state laws. Nor is there any merit to Mortier's contention that the express references in §§ 136t(b) and 136f(b) to "political subdivision[s]" show that Congress made a clear distinction between nonregulatory authority, which may be exercised by such subdivisions, and the regulatory authority reserved to the "State[s]" in § 136v(a). Furthermore, the legislative history is, at best, ambiguous, reflecting a disagreement between the responsible congressional committees as to whether the provision that would become § 136v preempted local regulation. Pp. 501 U. S. 606-610.

(c) FIFRA also fails to provide any clear and manifest indication that Congress sought to supplant local authority over pesticide regulation impliedly. The argument that the 1972 amendments transformed the Act into a

Page 501 U. S. 599

comprehensive statute that occupied the entire pesticide regulation field, and that certain provisions, including § 136v(a), reopened certain portions of the field to the States, but not to political subdivisions, is unpersuasive. Section 136v itself undercuts any inference of field preemption, since § 136v(b) prohibits States from enacting or imposing labeling or packaging requirements that conflict with those required under FIFRA. This language would be pure surplusage if Congress had already occupied the entire field. Nor does FIFRA otherwise imply preemption. While the 1972 amendments turned the Act into a comprehensive regulatory statute, substantial portions of the field are still left vacant, including the area at issue in this case. FIFRA nowhere seeks to establish an affirmative permit scheme for the actual use of pesticides or to occupy the field of local use permitting. Thus, the specific grant of authority in § 136v(a) must be read not as an exclusion of municipalities, but as an act ensuring that the States could continue to regulate use and sales even where, such as with regard to the banning of mislabeled products, a narrow preemptive overlap might occur. Pp. 501 U. S. 611-614.

(d) There is no actual conflict either between FIFRA or the ordinance at issue or between the Act and local regulation generally. Compliance with both the ordinance and FIFRA is not a physical impossibility. Moreover, Mortier's assertions that the ordinance stands as an obstacle to the Act's goals of promoting pesticide regulation that is coordinated solely at the federal and state levels, that rests upon some degree of technical expertise, and that does not unduly burden interstate commerce are based on little more than snippets of legislative history and policy speculations, and are unpersuasive. As is evidenced by § 136t(b), FIFRA implies a regulatory partnership between federal, state, and local governments. There is no indication that any coordination which the statute seeks to promote extends beyond the matters with which it expressly deals, or does so strongly enough to compel the conclusion that an independently enacted ordinance that falls outside the statute's reach frustrates its purpose. Nor is there any indication in FIFRA that Congress felt that local ordinances necessarily rest on insufficient expertise and burden commerce. Pp. 501 U. S. 614-616.

154 Wis.2d 18, 452 N.W.2d 555 (1990), reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 501 U. S. 616.

Page 501 U. S. 600

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