ARTICLE: Turning the Supremacy Clause on its Head: Bell Atlantic Maryland, Inc. v. Prince George's County Skip over navigation
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Copyright (c) 2001 The Catholic University Law Review
Catholic University Law Review

ARTICLE: Turning the Supremacy Clause on its Head: Bell Atlantic Maryland, Inc. v. Prince George's County

Fall, 2001

Catholic University Law Review

51 Cath. U.L. Rev. 191


Steven M. Warshawsky +



A fundamental principle of federal judicial review is that courts should avoid deciding cases on constitutional grounds when a non-constitutional basis for decision is available. 1 In Bell Atlantic Maryland, Inc. v. Prince George's County, 2 the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit invoked this venerable principle--commonly referred to as the "avoidance doctrine" 3 --to hold that the district court committed reversible error when it resolved the plaintiff's federal statutory preemption challenge to a local telecommunications ordinance before it addressed the plaintiff's alternative state law claims. 4

The Fourth Circuit's spare, three-page opinion in Bell Atlantic Maryland belies the complexity of the issues raised by its decision and masks a basic error in the court's reasoning that led it to the wrong outcome. Specifically, the court's assumption that the avoidance doctrine applies to federal preemption claims is incorrect. The avoidance doctrine only applies to constitutional decision-making, not statute-based rulings. In making this assumption, the Fourth Circuit relied on inapposite case law and completely ignored well-established Supreme Court precedent to the contrary. The Fourth Circuit also appears to have been motivated by strong anti-nationalist impulses. By requiring district courts to exhaust all possible state law grounds for a decision before addressing any federal preemption claims, the court's ruling effectively inverts the supremacy of federal over state law. Under the Fourth Circuit's approach, implementing Congress' express statutory commands becomes secondary to deciding cases on state law grounds.

This article closely examines the Fourth ...
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