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Hughes v. Oklahoma

Citation. 441 U.S. 322 (1979)
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Brief Fact Summary.

William Hughes, a Texas license holder to operate a commercial minnow business near Texas, challenged the Oklahoma statute after he was convicted under the statute and his defense that the statute violates the Commerce Clause was rejected.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The general rule when determining the burden imposed on interstate commerce is permissible is to inquire (1) whether the challenged statute regulated evenhandedly with only incidental effects on interstate commerce, or discriminates against interstate commerce; (2) whether the statute serves a legitimate local purpose; and if so (3) whether alternative means could promote this local purpose without discriminating against interstate commerce.


Oklahoma enacted a statute that provides that “no person may transport or ship minnows for sale outside the state which were seined or procured within the waters of this state.” Appellant William Hughes, who holds a Texas license to operate a commercial minnow business near Texas, was arrested by an Oklahoma Game Ranger on a charge of violating the statute by transporting from Oklahoma to Texas natural minnows purchased from a minnow dealer licensed to do business in Oklahoma. The appellant’s defense that the statute was unconstitutional in violation of the Commerce Clause was rejected and he was convicted and fined.


Does the Oklahoma statute that provides that “no person may transport or ship minnows for sale outside the state which were seined or procured within the waters of this state” violate the Commerce Clause?


Yes, the Oklahoma statute violates the Commerce Clause, because the statute on its face discriminates against interstate commerce. It forbids the transportation of natural minnows out of the state for purposes of sale, and thus overtly blocks the flow of interstate commerce at the state’s borders. Such facial discrimination by itself may be a fatal defect, regardless of the State’s purpose, because the harm of protectionism can reside in legislative means as well as legislative ends. Oklahoma, however, failed to demonstrate that the statute serves a legitimate state interest nor did it propose nondiscriminatory alternatives.


Justice Rehnquist

The Oklahoma statute evenhandedly applied to everyone and the State has not used its power to protect its own citizens from outside competition because no person is allowed to export natural minnows for sale outside of Oklahoma. This applies to both Oklahoma residents and nonresidents.


Oklahoma argues that the statute at issue serves a legitimate local purpose that it is readily apparent as a conservation measure. While courts have accepted the States’ interests in conservation and protection of wild animals as legitimate local purposes similar to the States’ interests in protecting the health and safety of their citizens, the scope of legitimate state interests in conservation is narrower than that proposed by Oklahoma. Here, far from choosing the least discriminatory alternative, Oklahoma has chosen to conserve its minnows in the way that most overtly discriminates against interstate commerce. The State places no limits on the numbers of minnows that can be taken by licensed minnow dealers nor does it limit how these minnows may be disposed of within the State. Yet it forbids the transportation of any commercially significant number of natural minnows out of the State for sale. Thus, the statute at issue is repugnant to the Commerce Clause.

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