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City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey Case Brief

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Under what conditions can states restrict goods being imported from other states? This question is at the heart of the Supreme Court case ''City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey.'' In this lesson, we'll examine that case and its implications.

The Commerce Clause

Do states have a right to restrict imported goods from other states? That's the question at the heart of the United States Supreme Court case City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey.

To understand the case, it's important to understand the Commerce Clause in Article 1 of the Constitution that says that the federal government can regulate commerce between different states (and also between the US and other sovereign governments).

The Negative Commerce Clause, also called the Dormant Commerce Clause, is an expansion of the original Commerce Clause that says that a state cannot interfere with commerce of other states. For example, let's say that the state of Missouri passes a law that says that only computers made in Missouri can be sold there. Or what if Delaware decides that vitamins made in other states must come with warning labels, but not vitamins made in Delaware?

In both of those hypothetical examples, the states would be violating the Negative Commerce Clause. That is, they would be interfering with the commerce of other states.

Let's take a look at how the Negative Commerce Clause played out in the 1978 SCOTUS case City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey.

Facts of the Case

The city of Philadelphia rests on the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. While it's technically in Pennsylvania, it is within a few miles of New Jersey. As such, the city often works with contractors both in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Several of the contracts Philadelphia had with New Jersey businesses in the 1970s was for waste removal. Essentially, Philadelphia had a deal with private New Jersey waste companies to take Philadelphia's waste products.

This angered the state of New Jersey; after all, no state wants to be the landfill for other states. In 1973, New Jersey passed a state law forbidding the importation of waste from other states. The city of Philadelphia sued New Jersey over the law, and eventually the case made it to the Supreme Court.

The Decision

In the SCOTUS case, Philadelphia argued that the New Jersey law breached the Negative Commerce Clause. Because New Jersey was forbidding the interstate commerce between Philadelphia and the waste companies in New Jersey, Philadelphia argued, New Jersey was interfering and thus violating the clause.

In June of 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States found in favor of Philadelphia. The majority opinion said that Philadelphia had a constitutional right to import its waste to New Jersey through the interstate arrangement it had made.

The majority opinion went on to say that interstate commerce can only be restricted by states if there is reason besides location of origin for the commerce to be restricted. For example, if there was an outbreak in Philadelphia that might spread if the waste was not quarantined, then New Jersey could restrict the importation of the waste. Otherwise, it should be sacrosanct under Article I.

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