Thursday, January 26, 2012
A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit ruled this week in Mabey v. Schoch that the federal Buy America Act and implementing regulations do not preempt Pennsylvania's Steel Act. Both acts require the use of steel made in the United States for public works projects funded by the federal and state governments, respectively. But the Buy America Act has broader exceptions, including, importantly, a provision that says that the Act is satisfied when a project "[i]ncludes no permanently incorporated steel or iron materials."
The case arose after the state, citing the state Steel Act, declined to use Mabey's temporary bridge on a project, because Mabey gets its steel from the United Kingdom. Pennsylvania previously contracted with Mabey, notwithstanding the state Steel Act. But it apparently changed its policy, decided to enforce the Steel Act against Mabey, and, according to Mabey, forced Mabey to cancel four of its state contracts.
Mabey sued, alleging that exception in the federal Buy America Act preempted the state Steel Act, and that its temporary bridge met the federal Act's provision relating to "no permanently incorporated steel or iron materials." The Third Circuit rejected this claim. It ruled that another section of the federal Buy America Act and its regulations, read as a whole, did not clearly reflect congressional intent to preempt; instead, they left room for states to issue more stringent regulations--exactly what Pennsylvania did here. Thus, the state's Steel Act restrictions applied with their full force to Mabey.
The court also rejected Mabey's Dormant Commerce Clause, Contract Clause, and equal protection claims. As to the dormant Commerce Clause, the court ruled that the Steel Act fell under the market participant exception (because Pennsylvania was a market participant when it contracted for public works) and, moreover, that Congress authorized Pennsylvania to discriminate against interstate commerce through the federal Buy America Act. The court said that the state's late-coming enforcement of the Steel Act against Mabey didn't violate the Contract Clause, because the Act was on the books since Mabey started contracting with the state, and the state agency's decision to enforce it didn't amount to "legislative authority subject to scrutiny under the Contract Clause." And finally the court ruled that the state didn't violate the Equal Protection Clause, because the state's action--first not enforcing, then enforcing, the Steel Act--was rational: "A state agency could rationally determine that application of domestic steel requirements to items used at the discretion of the contractor is too onerous and difficult to enforce."