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Hughes v. Oklahoma

Citation. 22 Ill.441 U.S. 322, 99 S. Ct. 1727, 60 L. Ed. 2d 250, 12 ERC 2106 (1979)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Hughes bought and shipped a load of natural minnows (small fish) from Oklahoma to Wichita Falls. Oklahoma restricted the transportation of minnows procured from waters within the State. Hughes was arrested, convicted, and fined. He then filed suit against the State, arguing the statute violated the Commerce Clause.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

If a statute is facially discriminatory against interstate commerce, it is a per se violation of the Commerce Clause unless the State has a strong justification and there are no alternative means that would be less discriminatory. A State may protect and conserve wild animal life within their borders, but only in ways consistent with the Commerce Clause.


Oklahoma had a statute which provided that “No person may transport or ship minnows for sale outside the state which were seined or procured within the waters of this state”. William Hughes had a Texas license to operate a commercial minnow business near Wichita Falls, Texas. He Bought natural minnows from a minnow dealer licensed to do business in Oklahoma and then shipped the minnows to Texas. He was arrested by a Oklahoma Game Ranger, convicted and fined.


Did the statute prohibiting transportation or shipment of minnows outside the state violate the Commerce Clause?


Justice Brennan: Yes. Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals judgment reversed.
The Court first overruled a prior case, Geer, which forbade the interstate transportation of wild game lawfully killed within the state. When an animal is lawfully killed it becomes an article of commerce and its use cannot be limited to the exclusion of citizens of another state.
The statute was facially discriminatory. It forbade the transportation of a natural resource out of the state for purpose of sale and thus blocked the flow of interstate commerce at the State’s border as in Philadelphia v. New Jersey. When facial discrimination exists, the Court will apply strict scrutiny to see if the regulation in question is the least restrictive means of accomplishing the local interest.
The legitimate local purpose was to conserve minnows. The State wanted to maintain an ecological balance in its waters by avoiding the removal of an inordinate number of minnows. This is a legitimate goal but the methods utilized are not the least restrictive necessary to accomplish that goal. The statute only prohibits sale and shipment outside the State. The State places no limits on the numbers of minnows that can be taken by licensed minnow dealers, nor does it limit how many minnows may be disposed of within the state. It instead forbids the transportation of any natural minnows out of the State for sale. The legislature chose the most discriminatory means even though non-discriminatory alternatives would seem likely to fulfill the State’s purpose more effectively.


Justice Rehnquist and the Chief Justice dissent.
The statute was not discriminatory and did not impede commerce. Every person, resident or nonresident was banned from exporting naturally seized minnows. Furthermore, the State gained no benefit to its economy from this ban.
The burden on interstate commerce was very little if at all. Minnows were available for interstate commerce, but only those that were hatchery minnows and not naturally seized minnows. The burden of purchasing hatchery minnows instead of minnows from the State’s waters would not have increased Hughes’ cost of doing business. Any burden was far outweighed by the State’s conservation concerns.
The statute regulated how residents and nonresidents procured minnows to be sold outside the State. The commerce was regulated directly but the main goal was conservation. This was not protectionist legislation in disguise.


The crux of this decision is the Court’s holding that the statute was discriminatory because it foreclosed an interstate market in one of the state’s natural resources. The dissent, by contrast, would have held that the statute was nondiscriminatory because all persons, whether Oklahoma residents or not, were banned from such activity.

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