WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court yesterday struck down an Alabama law that lives a higher tax on the disposal of hazardous waste generated outside the estate than on locally generated toxic waste.
The court's 8-to-1 ruling said Alabama's differential tax treatment of out-of-state waste violates the Constituion's commerce clause.
The court said states cannot impose discriminatory taxes on the disposal of waste from other states, even if their goal is to protect their citizens' health and safety.
"No state may attempt to isolate itself from a problem common to the several states by raising barriers to the free flow of interstate trade," said Justice Byron R. White, writing for the majority in Chemical Waste Management Inc. V. Hunt.
At issue in the case was an Alabama law that placed a tax on hazardous wastes disposed at in-state commercial facilities, and an additional tax of $72 per ton on wastes generated outside the state but disposed inside.
Justice White noted that once the court has found a tax discriminates against out-of-state commerce, "it is typically struck down without further inquiry." However, the Alabama law was enacted in a bid to protect the health and safety of state residents, protect the environment, and provide compensatory revenue for the costs and burdens that out-of-state waste generators impose by dumping their wastes within the state.
Consequently, the court went on to examine whether the law could be justified by some consideration unrelated to economic protectionism. The court majority concluded that Alabama "has not carried this burden."
The court said Alabama could have achieved its stated goals through less discriminatory alternatives. For example, Alabama could impose a generally applicable per ton fee on all vehicles transporting toxic waste across Alabama roads, or a cap on the total tonnage landfilled at commercial facilities.
"To the extent Alabama's concern touches environmental conservation and the health and safety of its citizens, such concern does not vary with the point of origin of the waste, and it remains within the state's power to monitor and regulate more closely the transportation and disposal of all hazardous waste within its borders," Justice White said.
"In sum," he continued, "we find the additional fee to be an obvious effort to saddle those outside the state with most of the burden of slowing the flow of waste into #the state]. That legislative effort is clearly impermissible under the commerce clause of the Constitution."
The court's ruling drew a strong rebuke from Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who said the court erred in its analysis by failing to "acknowledge that a safe and attractive environment is the commodity really at issue" in the dispute.
According to Chief Justice Rehnquist, Alabama"s tax was an effective means of discouraging the consumption of a safe environment. Moreover, the chief justice said, "the court today gets it exactly backward when it suggests that Alabama is attempting to 'isolate itself from a problem common to the several states.' Rather, it is the 34 states that have no hazardous waste facilities that have isolated themselves," Chief Justice Rehnquist said.
In other action yesterday, the Supreme Court:
* Declared unconstitutional a Michigan law that prohibits private landfill operators from accepting solid waste that originates outside the country in which their facilities are located; and
* Ruled that the federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 preempts states from enforcing airline fare advertising guidelines through general consumer protection laws.
The Michigan case, Fort Gratiot Sanitary Landfill Inc. v. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, was decided under a rational similar to that employed in the Alabama case. The court, in a 7-to-2 ruling delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, concluded that the Michigan law violates the Constitution's commerce clause.
"Whether the business arrangements between out-of-state generators of waste and the Michigan operator of a waste disposal site are viewed as 'sales' of garbage or 'purchases' of transportation and disposal services, the commercial transactions unquestionably have an intersate character," Justice Stevens said.
Like the Alabama law, the Michigan statue was enacted because of health and safety concerns. "There is, however, no valid health and safety reason for limiting the amount of waste that a landfill operator may accept from outside the state, but not the amount that the operator may accept from inside the state," Justice Stevens said.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, dissented, saying it is hard to imagine that the Michigan law was imposed as a means of economic protectionism.
"If anything, the challenged regulation seems likely to work to Michigan's economic disadvantage," the justices said. They said that by limiting potential disposal volumes for commercial sites, "various fixed costs will have to be[ recovered across smaller volumes, increasing disposal costs per unit for Michigan consumers."