Brief Fact Summary. Minnesota had a law that banned non-recyclable or reusable milk containers but allowed recyclable and reusable milk containers. The goal was waste management and environmental protection. Various companies including those that manufacture non-returnable plastic milk jugs sued Minnesota.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The State’s law that restricted the type of packaging milk companies could use, which affected interstate commerce, was upheld as a valid environmental protection method. The legislation was not facially discriminatory. The Commerce Clause required the state to use the least restrictive restraints on interstate commerce to achieve a legitimate environmental goal. The legislation’s benefits outweighed its discriminatory effects.
Issue. Does the Minnesota statute impose an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce?
Held. Justice Brennan opinion: No. Minnesota District Court judgment is reversed.
This is a facially non-discriminatory statute. To determine if the statute was really economic protectionism in disguise, the court first found there was first no discriminatory purpose. The legislative history supports the Minnesota Supreme Court’s conclusion that the principal purposes of the Act were to promote conservation and ease solid waste disposal problems. The contrary evidence cited by the opponents is easily understood, in context, as politicians seeking votes by citing the local economic benefits of the program. Because there was no discriminatory purpose, next one would look for a discriminatory effect.
The statue placed a relatively minor burden on interstate commerce. Milk products could freely cross the Minnesota border and because most dairies have multiple ways to package their products, it was not inconvenient to conform to different packaging requirements in different states.
Interstate commerce will not be burdened by the shift from manufacturing plastic to manufacturing paper products because two of the three dairies that challenge the statute are Minnesota firms. Interstate plastic companies will still produce plastic for plastic pouches, returnable bottles, and paperboard itself. Even if pulpwood industries in the state are benefited, out of state pulpwood producers will presumably absorb some of the business generated by the Act.
Even if interstate commerce is heavily burdened, the burden is not “clearly excessive” in light of the substantial state interest in promoting conservation of energy and there is no approach with a lesser impact on interstate activities available.
Dissent. Justice Powell dissented in part, saying he would not reach the Commerce Clause issue but would remand it for consideration by the Supreme Court of Minnesota. Justice Stevens dissented because he claimed the Court was not free to reject the factual conclusions reached by the Supreme Court of Minnesota and claimed that those conclusions justified a holding that the statute was in violation of the Equal Protection claim.
Discussion. This was a non-discriminatory (evenhanded) statute and so the Court balanced any discriminatory motive against the burden on interstate commerce. In this case the state had a valid substantial interest in the environment. There were no hidden protectionist motivations. Furthermore, the burden was not that heavy because companies could easily modify production to include recyclable containers and many states had different laws about what the proper milk containers would be.