ERISA Preemption: Judicial Flexibility and Statutory Rigidity

This Article attempts to describe the ways in which, and the reasons why section 514(a) has caused the courts and Congress so much difficulty. Part I reviews the legislative history of section 514(a), with emphasis on the ambivalence Congress has shown toward its 1974 draftsmanship. Part II attempts to provide a coherent description of the case law that has developed under section 514(a). Part III completes the legislative history by examining the two instances in which experience compelled Congress to revise section 514. Finally, Part IV discusses examples of problems courts have faced when crafting a federal common law of employee benefits in light of section 514 and concludes that the peculiar absence in section 514 of any recognition of state policies has had an adverse effect on the common law process. The primary shortcoming of section 514 is that, although it establishes a good starting point for thinking about ERISA preemption, it falls short both as a practical rule and as a guide to principled decisionmaking. Courts have thus had little choice but to create a federal common law of ERISA, including preemption, in spite of, and to some extent hindered by, the literal language of the statute.