In 2013, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a partial opt-out for some businesses with workers’ comp plans. That opt-out was recently declared unconstitutional (in regards to the state constitution) by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Their reasoning was that it constituted a “special law.” Such reasonings show how archaic our state constitution is.
The relevant portion of the state constitution is Article V, Section 59, which reads, “Laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation throughout the State, and where a general law can be made applicable, no special law shall be enacted.”
Unfortunately, what actually constitutes a “special law” is not given further definition in the constitution. However, the decision which struck down the workers’ comp opt-out, Vasquez v. Dillard’s Inc., discusses it in more detail. It describes a three part test: “First, is the law special or general? Second, if the law is special in nature, does a general law apply? And, finally, if a general law is not applicable, is the statute a permissible special law?”
In relation to the first prong, the court stated that “If the statute relates to all persons or things within the class, it is a general law. Where the law singles out less than an entire class of similarly affected persons or things for different treatment, it is a special law.” In order to determine whether or not the law constituted a special law, the court had to determine the class to which it applied. Dillard’s, a department store, contended that the relevant class was employers, but Vasquez, an injured employee, argued that the relevant class was injured employees. The court agreed with Vasquez largely because the language of the law refers almost entirely to employees. Because the law created a system in which employees of a firm that opted out of the workers’ comp program would be treated differently than employees of a firm that did not, the court ruled the law a special law.
The court further found, in relation to the second prong, that there was a separate general law that applied. That left only the third prong that could be used to uphold the law. Dillard’s argued that the law was permissible because it was “reasonably related to a legitimate government objective.” However, the court ultimately maintained that “the interests of employers in reducing compensation costs” could not be used as a justification for a special law. Thus, the court found the law unconstitutional.
Now, my understanding of Oklahoma constitutional law is quite limited. So, I’ll presume that the justices reached a legally correct ruling, especially since it was 7–2. However, I do think a couple of things are worth pointing out.
First of all, the court repeatedly referred to the legislation as discriminatory. That does not seem accurate to me. The law set up a uniform system from which business could opt out. I imagine many readers think allowing businesses to do so is a terrible idea because it could result in less protection for workers. Maybe it is indeed a terrible policy. However, even then, that does not seem like discrimination. The state is not the one determining who gets benefits and who does not. Rather, the determining factor is whether or not an employer participates in the program.
Secondly, there are perhaps problems more generally with the “special law” prohibition. Last year, a regulation of abortion drugs which required them to be administered per FDA label instructions was struck down as a special law because the law applied only to a particular type of drug. That reasoning itself seems reasonable enough, but The Oklahoman Editorial Board wrote an op-ed about other potential problems with the ruling. For instance, nonprescription allergy medication containing pseudoephedrine is treated differently than medication without it in order to make it more difficult to obtain the ingredients for methamphetamine. Is that a special law?
It makes sense to restrict laws that apply only in very particular cases. In general, the government should be treating classes of things or people equally. Special treatment is cause for suspicion. However, sometimes there is cause, in limited cases, for special treatment. Perhaps the workers’ comp law was not one of these cases. However, given how vague the actual constitutional text is, it is not hard to imagine that the special law provision will be used in cases it should not be. The state legislature should consider proposing an amendment that clarifies how the special law ban should be applied.