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Supreme Court of Ohio Finds Anti-Blocking Statute is Federally Pre-Empted & Cannot be Enforced Against Railroad

Article by Colleen Mountcastle, Esq.

In State v. CSX Transp., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2832, the Supreme Court of Ohio found that Ohio’s anti-blocking statute (R.C. 5589.21) cannot be enforced against railroads as it is federally-preempted.  The Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s dismissal of all charges brought against CSX for violating R.C. 5589.21.

R.C. 5589.21 prohibits a stopped train from blocking a railroad crossing for more than five minutes; a violation of the statute is a first-degree misdemeanor, R.C. 5589.99.  In State v. CSX Transp., Inc., the state charged CSXT with violating R.C. 5589.21 on five occasions, but the trial court concluded that the Termination Act and the Safety Act preempted Ohio’s anti-blocking statute and dismissed the charges. The appellate court rejected the argument that federal law preempted R.C. 5589.21 and reversed the dismissal of the charges.

In today’s decision, the Ohio Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s dismissal of all charges brought against CSX for violating R.C. 5589.21.  However, in doing so, the Court stated “We acknowledge the significant danger to the public that is created when stopped trains obstruct the movement of first responders across railroad tracks. However, the regulation of railroad transportation is a matter of federal law, and the federal government alone has the power to address the threat to public safety caused by blocked crossings. Because R.C. 5589.21 is preempted, it cannot be enforced against CSX. The trial court correctly dismissed the charges in this case.”  Justice Kennedy authored the Court’s opinion and Justice DeWine concurred.

Justices Fischer, O’Connor, and Stewart concurred in judgment only.  In his concurring opinion, which Justice O’Connor joined, Justice Fischer echoed the words of the majority opinion, stating, “[u]nfortunately, R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by federal law. Other states that have decided similar issues of preemption have reached the same conclusion. Although I personally think the applicable federal law does not adequately protect the public, my hands are tied.”  He further urged Congress and the Ohio General Assembly “to resolve the issue related to trains blocking public grade crossings.”

The strongly worded dissenting opinion written by Justice Brunner states, “Under a plain reading, a statute that is about safety and railroads is about railroad safety. Since the federal government has not acted to protect citizens from the effects of railroad cars that block crossings, nor granted impunity for the blocking of crossings, the Ohio legislature is permitted to enact laws to protect the safety of Ohio citizens in this scenario. While other jurisdictions hold that their grade-crossing laws are preempted by federal law despite a lack of federal regulation on that subject matter, those nonbinding precedents do not deprive Ohioans of the protections afforded by the Ohio General Assembly.“ Justice Donnelly concurred in the dissenting opinion.

Burns White represented amicus curiae, Association of American Railroads.