WASHINGTON -- In a significant vicory for states, the Supreme Court on Friday stuch down a key provision of a federal law that would have required states to take title to radioactive waste if they did not make other arrangements for its proper disposal.
In a 6-to-3 ruling in New York v. United States, the court said the so-called take-title provision of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 violates the Constitution's 10th Amendment because it directs states to take specified actions.
"States are not mere political subdivisions of the United States," wrote Sandra Day O'Connor for the court majority. "State governments are neither regional offices nor administrative agencies of the federal government. The Constitution instead leaves to the several states a residuary and inviolable sovereignty reserved explicitly to the states by the 10th Amendment."
However, the court unanimously ruld that other portions of the waste law that provide incentives for states to deal with the nation's radioactive waste problem fall well within Congress's powers.
Under the waste law, Congress authorized states that have disposal sites to impose surcharges on radioactive waste received from other states. Portions of the surchages are turned over the U.S. Department of Energy, which then redistributes the money to states that make provisions for the safe disposal of radioactive waste.
In addition, Congress authorized states and regional compacts to increase the cost access to the sites and ultimately to deny access to the sites altogether to states that had not met federal guidelines.
Justice O'Connor said both provisions are constitutional because they don not "include on the sovereignty reserved to the states by the 10th Amendment."
But in adopting the take-title provision of the law, she said, "Congress has crossed the line distinguishing encouragement from coercion." Noting that the provision requires states either to accept ownership of the waste or to regulate according to the instructions of Congress, Justice O'Connor said "the Constitution simply does not give Congress the authority" to make such requirements.
Justice Byron White -- joined by Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens -- dissented, saying the take-title provision of the law "proves to be less constitutionally odious than the court opines."
According to Justice White, other states will suffer as a result of New York's victory in the case.
"This court's refusal to force New York to accept responsibility for its own problem inevitably means that some other state's sovereignty will be impinged by it being forced, for public health reasons, to accept New York's low-level radioactive waste," he said. "I do not understand the principle of federalism to impede the national government from acting as referee among the states to prohibit one from bullying another."
Justice White also said that the take-title provison arose after extensive negotiations mong the states, and that New York's congressional delegation helped write the radioactive waste law.
But Justice O'Connor said the Constitution does not protect state sovereignty for the benefit of the states or state governments as abstract entities, or for public officials who govern the states. Rather, she said, the Constitution divides power between the federal and state governments to protect individuals.
"Where Congress exceeds its authority relative to the states, therefore, the departure from the constitutional plan cannot be ratified by the 'consent' of state officials," she said.
According to the court majority, "powerful incentives" might exist that lead both federal and state officials to view departures from the constitutional system as in their personal best interests. That is especially true in the realm of radio-active waste, as most voters believe there is a need for safe disposal sites, but are not agitating to have such sites near their homes.
"If a federal official is faced with the alternatives of choosing a location or directing the states to do it, the official may well prefer the latter, as a means of shifting responsibility for the eventual decision," the majority said.
By the same token, state officials may well prefer having Congress choose the location as a means of avoiding personal responsibility.
"The interest of public officials thus may not coincide with the Constitution's intergovernmental allocation of authority," Justice O'Connor said. "Where state officials purpose to submit to the direction of Congress in this manner, federalism is hardly being advanced."
In other developments Friday, the court by a 5-to-4 vote struck down a Forsyth County, Ga., ordinance governing permits for marched and parades. In a ruling delivered by Justice Blackmun, the court said the statute is unconstitutionally content-based because it requires county officials to examine the content of the message conveyed before assessing the cost of security for parade participants.