The United States of America was founded on a Constitution that still serves as the supreme law of the land in our country today. Each state created its own constitution to be the supreme law throughout the state and second only to the Constitution of the United States. Many claims are made throughout the United States are based on the constitutionality of particular laws or statutes enacted by different states. However, very few of these challenges will ever make it to the Supreme Court of the United States where a final decision can be made on the the constitutionality of a challenged law. For an appellate court to rule on a constitutional challenge, it must have been “properly raised and pleaded in the trial court below.” This means that the sole issue of the case at bar must be a determination on the constitutionality of a particular state action.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in Louisiana heard a case where this exact issue and rule was raised. It arose from a claim made by Mr. Vincent E. Johnson against Motiva Enterprises, LLC (“Motiva”) for damages arising out of his exposure to toxic chemicals while working at a Motiva refinery in Norco, LA. The constitutional issue arose because Motiva had protected themselves from being sued by the plaintiff because of a contract with its direct employers. Therefore, this case turned more onto the issue of the validity of this contractual agreement between and employer (Motiva) and employee (Mr. Johsnon).
The trial court found that the contract was valid and refused to deliver an opinion on the constitutionality issue of the Louisiana statute allowing for this particular contract. It is a known fact that courts shy away from determining the constitutionality of legislation unless the resolution of the constitutional issue is absolutely essential to the decision of the case.
Here the appellate court determined that the constitutionality of the Louisiana statute was a “seminal” issue in determining whether Motiva was entitled to the tort immunity that was provided to it by the specific statute in question. Because the trial court declined to deliberate the constitutional issue, the entire case was not properly before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal and was accordingly remanded back to the trial court for a ruling on the statute’s constitutionality.
The issues on hand during this trial are ones that have been entangling our legal system since its inception into the United States’ fabric. The duty of the courts to determine the constitutionality of legislation is a delicate issue and only comes to the forefront when there is no other way for the case to be remedied. The trial court may have shied away from deciding the constitutionality issue of Mr. Johnson’s claim for a variety of reasons, but as is supposed to occur, the Appellate court reviewed the decision and deemed it necessary to determine. Mr. Johnson will get another chance for his claim to be heard and if the statute is determined unconstitutional, the court will change the law throughout the state of Louisiana.