Linda Greenhouse takes a whimsical look at the (US) Supreme Court’s caseload, discussing the case of Hackworth v Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. (pdf of the decision being appealed). The case (which hasn’t yet been accepted by the Supreme Court, or granted certiorari as the Court would put it) deals with a curious question: whether 75 miles means as the crow flies or by road. The statute is unclear, but the relevant regulator (the Department of Labor) decided it as ‘by road’ in subsequent regulations. For Hackworth, who is seeking the protection of family leave law, this means that her employer could avail of an opt-out from that very law – but if 75 means 75 directly rather than by road, the employer loses the opt-out and she wins her case (potentially).

Greenhouse’s article is a useful illustration of the importance of secondary legislation and of administrative law (although her line is more in terms of constitution v statutes, that is what I take from it!). It’s something that I reminded students in my tutorial groups during the year – in this university, administrative law is the second half of a year-old Constitutional Law 2 course (the first half is fundamental rights). Ultimately, seemingly ‘unglamorous’ case can be interesting in terms of where the parties end up, what it says about administration and power, and indeed how it relates back to the rest of the legal system.

As an aside (although also a good teaching tool regarding the role of interpretation acts) , I don’t think this particular dispute would arise under Irish law. The Interpretation Act 2005 provides (at s 18(e)

Distance. A word or expression relating to the distance between two points and every reference to the distance from or to a point shall be read as relating or referring to such distance measured in a straight line on a horizontal plane

However, there appears to be no similar provision in the US (it’s not even mentioned in the opinion of the appeal court) so they found that Congress did not speak to the matter, and that the regulation was not unreasonable (within the framework of the famous Chevron case). Indeed.