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Philadelphia v. New Jersey

    Brief Fact Summary. New Jersey prohibited the importation of most solid or liquid waste, which originated or was collected outside the State. Private landfill operators in New Jersey and several cities in other states that had agreements with New Jersey operators filed suit.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Although burdens on interstate commerce may be unavoidable when a State legislates to safeguard the health and safety of its people, the court is still alert to the economic isolation and protectionism. A statute can be deemed invalid not solely because the legislature was trying to isolate the state or area, but also because the statute actually isolates the state or area even though legislators did not so intend.

    Facts. A New Jersey law prohibited the importation of most solid or liquid waste which originated or was collected outside the territorial limits of the State. Private landfill operators in New Jersey and several cities in other states that had agreements with these operators brought suit against New Jersey in state court challenging the validity of the statute and regulations issued under it. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the legislation. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

    Issue. Does the statutory prohibition on imported solid or liquid waste violate the Commerce Clause because it is a protectionist measure?

    Held. Justice Stewart opinion: Yes. New Jersey Supreme Court judgment reversed.
    Although the legislative purpose might have been to protect New Jersey’s environment, the legislature could not accomplish that goal by discriminating against articles of commerce coming from outside the State unless there was some reason to treat such articles differently. There is no basis to distinguish out of state waste from domestic waste.
    On its face the law is attempting to isolate New Jersey from a problem common to many states by erecting a barrier against the movement of interstate trade. By blocking the importation of waste, New Jersey is trying to saddle those outside the State with the entire burden of slowing the flow of refuse into New Jersey’s remaining landfill sites. That legislative effort violates the Commerce Clause.

    Dissent. Justice Rehnquist and the Chief Justice dissent.
    Quarantine laws that the Court has upheld allow a state to prevent diseased cattle from being imported from another state so that the legislature may protect its own state. New Jersey’s attempt to protect its state from solid waste is no different. There is no reason that New Jersey should accept diseased cattle or the solid waste from other states and exacerbate its problems. There is no basis for distinguishing the laws under challenge here from past cases upholding state laws that prohibit the importation of items that could endanger the population of the State.
    New Jersey passed the statute to preserve the health of New Jersey residents by keeping their exposure to solid waste and landfill areas to a minimum. There is no evidence that would contradict the stated motive.

    Discussion. The majority found a per se violation of the Commerce Clause because New Jersey was impeding commerce. They did not find the environmental justifications strong enough to override the Commerce Clause concerns.


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