Legal Law

If that’s the law then

The 19th century British author, Charles Dickens, once worked as a clerk at a law firm, and many of the characters in his novels were derived from clients he met while working at the firm. In one of his novels from the 1840s, I don’t remember which Dickens novel was, there was a colloquium between two of the characters. The first character explains the operation of a new British law that had just come into effect for the second character. Upon learning of the new law, the second character responds in disbelief: “Sir, if that’s the law, then the law is an ass!” Since reading the Dickens novel whose title I do remember, I have often read about new laws or legal rulings that remind me that Dickens’s character was right in describing the “law as an ass.” Here’s a case that I remember writing about at the time.

In 2008, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down a recently enacted New York law that required airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers trapped in delayed planes. The law was struck down by the court, which noted that while the move was well-intentioned, it violated federal authority.

The law was passed after thousands of passengers were stranded for up to 10 hours on multiple JetBlue Airways flights at Kennedy International Airport on Valentine’s Day in 2007. Passengers complained that they were deprived of food and water and that the bathrooms overflowed. A month later, passengers from other airlines were stranded aboard other airlines at Kennedy after an ice storm.

The law was challenged by the Air Transportation Association of America, the industry trade group that represents major American airlines. Strange that this trade group appears to be advocating for passengers to be deprived of food, water and clean toilets on stranded commercial airliners.

The Second Circuit held that while the objectives of the law were “laudable” and the circumstances that led to its adoption “deplorable,” only the federal government has the authority to pass such regulations. The doctrine of preference establishes that, under the Commerce Clause, federal rules that protect the health, safety, and well-being of people traveling to our country must take precedence and prevail or override any statute of state law that is refer to the same topic. Certainly, we can understand the doctrine of federal preference; however, in this case we should say, “Lord, if that’s the law, then the law is an ass!”

See: Air Transport Ass’n of America, Inc. v. Cuomo, No. 07-5771-cv, slip op (2d Cir. March 25, 2008). 2008 US Application Lexis 6130