Constitutional Law I, Pages 272–276

Philadelphia v. New Jersey

Supreme Court of the United States, 1978


A New Jersey law prohibited importing most waste from outside the state. Various landfill operators in the state sued in state court.

Procedural History:

  • The trial court declared the law unconstitutional for discriminating against interstate commerce.

  • New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding that it advanced vital health and environmental objectives without discriminating against and only slightly burdening interstate commerce.


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Pike v. Bruce Church

"Where the statute regulates evenhandedly to effectuate a legitimate local public interest, and its effects on interstate commerce are only incidental, it will be upheld unless the burden imposed on such commerce is clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits. . . . If a legitimate local purpose is found, then the question becomes one of degree. And the extent of the burden that will be tolerated will of course depend on the nature of the local interest involved, and on whether it could be promoted as well with a lesser impact on interstate activities."


Was the law an unconstitutional protectionist measure or was it directed to legitimate local concerns with only incidental effect upon interstate commerce?


The New Jersey law did regulate interstate commerce, and there was no federal law pre-empting it. Therefore the statute's purpose must be evaluated.

New Jersey's landfills had been only a few years from filling up, and developing new landfills would take a heavy environmental toll and use already scarce open lands. However, even just reducing waste disposal costs would be a valid objective for New Jersey courts. However, even with a valid purpose, the law cannot discriminate against out-of-state commerce unless there is some reason, apart from the origin, to treat it differently. Such restrictions have been consistently held to be constitutionally invalid. This law is, on its face, one such law.

This law is also distinct from quarantine laws, which have held to be valid. Quarantine laws prevent traffic in noxious articles, whatever their origin. This law does not prevent hauling waste into or through the state. It says that the harm arises after depositing it in a landfill, but there is no difference from local waste at that point.


The law unconstitutionally discriminated against out-of-state commerce. Reversed.

Dissenting Opinion:

Rehnquist: The majority says that New Jersey either must prohibit all landfill operations while looking for a presently nonexistent solution to its problem or must accept waste from everywhere in the country, which multiplies its problems. Precedent does not establish such a dichotomy.

Quarantine cases are dispositive here. New Jersey could require infected materials to be disposed of as best as possible within the state but still prohibit their importation for disposal. Similarly, it should be free to prohibit the importation of solid waste because of the risk it poses its citizens while continuing to dispose of its own waste. There is no distinction to make between them, and the Commerce Clause was not made to turn on such pointless distinctions.