The supremacy of federal law over state law prevailed in the United States Supreme Court Tuesday when the justices struck down an Arkansas statute that had allowed that state to seize prisoners' social security benefits. This unanimous ruling will likely invalidate similar provisions in Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. It could also affect veterans' benefits and other federal allotments made to individuals confined in state penal institutions or mental hospitals.
The federal law in question, which is part of the Social Security Act, states that ``none of the monies paid or payable or rights existing under this sub-chapter shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency law.''
Under the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution, when a state statute conflicts with federal law, the federal law governs.
In this matter, Bennett v. Arkansas, the state contended that it was entitled to seize inmates' social security benefits because it provided ``care and maintenance'' for prisoners. It reasoned that the basic purpose of the Social Security Act was to ensure that the financial needs of retired persons are met - and that the state was fulfilling the needs of older prisoners in its care.
The Arkansas Supreme Court had earlier affirmed the state's claim and its reimbursement statute when it was challenged by George Bennett, an inmate for 21 years. Mr. Bennett, who was released in 1984, became eligible for social security benefits while in jail. He sought $3,600 in back allotments seized by the state. Tuesday's ruling virtually assures him of recovering these funds.