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Supreme Court Decision Update - United Haulers Association, Inc. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority

trashTruck.jpgSorry for being so late on getting an update on the last of Monday’s Supreme Court decisions - these things happen. Anyway, United Haulers Association, Inc. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority (PDF of the opinion) is about trash. In a 6-3 decision, the Supremes said that local governments can require trash haulers to deliver trash to local municipal facilities, despite it being cheaper (for the haulers) to take the trash to other facilities for processing.

This case is basically about the dormant commerce clause, so it’s worth a quick mention as to what that is. The Constitution has a Commerce Clause, which says that Congress has the power to control and regulate anything affecting interstate commerce. The dormant commerce clause come from Supreme decisions and basically says that the result of the Commerce Clause is that states cannot pass legislation which interferes with or places improper burdens on interstate commerce (as Chief Justice Johnny puts it, there is “an implicit restraint on state authority” that comes out of the Commerce Clause). Whether this dormant commerce clause should really be relied upon in case law and if so, to what extent, has been a contested issue for quite some time.

This case was ultimately a dormant commerce clause case, as the trash haulers said they could save money by going out-of-state, so they argued that these upstate New York ordinances were placing a burden on interstate commerce, in violation of the dormant commerce clause. In a majority opinion written mostly by Chief Justice Johnny (there was one section of his opinion that didn’t quite get the votes it needed), the Supremes said the dormant commerce clause didn’t come into play here. The question is “whether [a law] discriminates on its face against interstate commerce,” with “discrimination” being “differential treatment of in-state and out-of-state economic interests that benefits the former and burdens the latter.” And there is no such discrimination here, says C.J. Johnny, because the local ordinances treat private in-state businesses exactly the same as out-of-state businesses, requiring all of them to use the local public facilities. In fact, he says, the only real burden created by these ordinances is that trash removal costs will be higher and that burden will actually fall on the local citizenry, the very same folks who mostly voted for the ordinances in the first place.

The Scalia and Justice Thomas each filed opinions concurring in part. The Scalia agrees with most of Chief Justice Johnny’s opinion, but wants to “reaffirm my view that ‘the so-called ‘negative’ Commerce Clause is an unjustified judicial invention, not to be expanded beyond its existing domain.” That is, he thinks the Court needs to stop relying on dormant commerce clause precedents, except for two narrow exceptions (neither of which apply to this case). Thomas has much the same point, saying that “[t]he negative Commerce Clause has no basis in the Constitution and has proved unworkable in practice,” because its application “turns solely on policy considerations, not on the Constitution.”

Finally, Justice Alito filed a dissent, joined by Justices Stevens and Kennedy. They rely on a 1994 Supreme decision, C & A Carbone, Inc. v. Clarkstown, which they say requires the ordinances in this case to be tossed out. In that case, the Court held that a local ordinance requiring “all solid waste to be processed at a designated transfer station before leaving the municipality” was a violation of the dormant commerce clause. There’s no difference between that ordinance and the ones here, says Alito, so these ordinances should also be considered in violation of the dormant commerce clause. Chief Justice Johnny obviously didn’t buy that argument, saying that Carbone was different from this case because the facilities in that situation were private facilities, while the facilities in this case were public facilities. That’s an important distinction, he argues, and as the Carbone majority didn’t say anything about public facilities, it holds no precedential weight over this case. Alito argues otherwise, saying that “[t]he public-private distinction drawn by the Court is both illusory and without precedent.”