City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey (1978)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Case Summary

Cities, including Philadelphia, and landfill operators, sued to challenge a New Jersey law that prevented out-of-State waste from being treated or disposed of within New Jersey. The trial court judge declared the law unconstitutional because it violated the Commerce Clause, by which the Constitution prevents States from regulating interstate trade. The State Supreme Court reversed, finding that the law had significant health and environmental objectives with little burden on commerce. The plaintiffs then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the New Jersey statute prohibiting importation of solid waste from outside the State violated the Commerce Clause. Justice Potter Stewart wrote the majority opinion. He quickly rejected the argument that the transportation of waste did not involve interstate commerce because the products are “worthless.“ Their movement from State to State constitutes interstate commerce, he reasoned, regardless of whether the waste products themselves have immediate economic value.

Justice Stewart noted: “Whatever New Jersey's ultimate purpose, it may not be accomplished by discriminating against articles of commerce coming from outside the State unless there is some reason, apart from their origin, to treat them differently.“ New Jersey's law restricts commerce from out-of-State in order to preserve New Jersey's remaining landfill. Justice Stewart concluded that this approach places the burden of New Jersey's conservation efforts on businesses located in other States, and thus violated the Commerce Clause.

Justice William Rehnquist's dissent argued that the Court has allowed States to enact “quarantine laws“ that prohibit importation of harmful items. “I simply see no way to distinguish solid waste, on the record of this case, from germ-infected rags, diseased meat, and other noxious items.“

More on the Case

New Jersey, the most densely populated State, has made various attempts to solve the solid waste problem. After the failure of its waste-restriction efforts in Philadelphia, five counties built garbage incinerators. Although the new facilities were expensive, waste-disposal regulations called “flow control“ required that locally generated waste be processed at local facilities. The flow-control regulations protected the counties from competition, so they could charge more for waste disposal, allowing them to pay for the new facilities. However, in 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that a similar New York flow control ordinance violated the Commerce Clause, because it prevented out-of-State companies from competing for local waste-disposal business. New Jersey's flow-control regulations were ultimately declared unconstitutional by the federal courts as well.

In Oregon Waste Systems v. Department of Environmental Quality of the State of Oregon, 1994, the Supreme Court further restricted States' waste-disposal options by ruling that a State may not impose a surcharge on the in-State disposal of waste generated in another State. The majority relied on the Philadelphia case for the proposition that “a State may not accord its own inhabitants a preferred right of access over consumers in other States to natural resources located within its borders.“

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Information Please®, ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sources +