Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Company - Oral Argument - October 08, 2002

Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Company

Media for Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Company

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 15, 2003 in Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 08, 2002 in Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Company

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 01-705, Jo Anne Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Company and a related case.

We'll wait just a minute.

Ms. McDowell.

Barbara B. McDowell:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The Coal Act states that the Commissioner of Social Security shall, before October 1st, 1993, assign each beneficiary to a signatory coal operator or related person that remains in business.

That provision understood, in light of this Court's precedents, establishes the deadline that is mandatory but not jurisdictional.

It does not deprive the commissioner of the power or the obligation to complete the assignments after that date, if necessary.

That understanding comports with the text and structure of the Coal Act, as well as with... with one of its central purposes, that to the maximum extent possible, each coal retiree's benefits would be paid for by a coal operator that actually employed that miner or a related person.

Antonin Scalia:

But that's not true.

In fact, if later research has showed that somebody should have been assigned somewhere else, you... you don't shift the beneficiaries.

It... it isn't the case that... that this is designed to assure a perfect system in which somebody who is responsible, no matter that a mistake was made in the past, in the future that person will be reassigned the way he should be.

Barbara B. McDowell:

Well, the statute does provide for administrative review of assignment so that a coal operator who was assigned a miner in error could challenge that before the commissioner, and if the commissioner found that the assignment was erroneous, the miner could be assigned to a... a more appropriate coal operator.

In addition, the regulations promulgated by the commissioner for the administrative review process allowed the commissioner herself to reopen an assignment if she found that it had been erroneous within a 1-year period.

William H. Rehnquist:

What happens to someone who wasn't assigned before October 1st?

They're... they're not just left out in the cold, are they?

Barbara B. McDowell:


Congress did provide a fallback position for all of those who weren't assigned by October 1st or... or at any time because they had no former employer or related person who remained in business, and that is, that they will be treated as part of the unassigned beneficiary pool.

The benefits for those miners are paid from an appropriation from the AML Fund, a fund originally created to ameliorate the problems of abandoned mines, and if that fund proves insufficient, the funds will come from a... a premium imposed on all of the coal operators to whom beneficiaries who have been assigned.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Ms. McDowell, there... there is a section, 9704(f)(2)(B), that deals with annual adjustment of unassigned premiums.

And it says that if there's an assigned miner and the operator goes out of business in any given year, then that assigned miner becomes part of the pool.

And it doesn't matter really whether the initial assignment was before the October 1 deadline or not.

They just go into the pool in time.

And that seems to work somewhat against your interpretation.

Barbara B. McDowell:

I think the situation addressed in that provision is quite different, even assuming that it unequivocally establishes that the commissioner couldn't reassign somebody after a company went into bankruptcy.

But assignments at the outset of the process, the sorts of assignments that we're concerned with here, are quite different from an assignment after bankruptcy that could occur 20, 30, or 40 years down the road, and Congress may well have been interested only in achieving a correct initial assignment at the outset and not with continuing to readjust the assignments--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, it does show at least that much, that Congress didn't want to continue perpetually to adjust these things for the--

Barbara B. McDowell:

--Yes, that's correct.

But the fact that the... that Congress directed that the applicable percentage for calculating the assigned beneficiary premium shall be adjusted in certain circumstances doesn't suggest to us that Congress would not have permitted it to be adjust in other... adjusted in other circumstances as well that Congress may not have explicitly contemplated at the time that the Coal Act was enacted.

One of those was the fact that--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--Is it possible that that deadline was some kind of political compromise, so to speak, at the time it was passed and the operators thought, well, that's it?