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Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co.

Citation: 11 ELR 20070
No. No. 79-1171, 449 U.S. 456/15 ERC 1473/(U.S., 01/21/1981) Rev'd

Reversing the Minnesota Supreme Court, 9 ELR 20739 (1979), the United States Supreme Court holds that a state ban on the retail sale of milk in plastic nonreturnable containers bears a rational relationship to the state's objective to foster greater use of environmentally desirable alternatives and must be sustained under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, the statute does not constitute an impermissible burden on interstate commerce. Relying on studies that show that banning nonreturnable, nonrefillable milk containers would promote resource conservation, ease solid waste disposal problems, and conserve energy, the Minnesota legislature banned the sale of milk in plastic containers. Respondents disputed that the act would promote the legislative goals and argued that it would increase the price of milk products and prolong the use of ecologically undesirable paperboard containers. The state district court enjoined enforcement of the act, concluding that since the actual basis for the act was economic protection of certain local industries, it violated the substantive Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause. On appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the lower court exclusively on the equal protection and due process grounds, finding, however, that although the act's purpose to promote state interests in minimizing solid waste was legitimate, discrimination against plastic containers was not rationally related to the act's objectives.The U.S. Supreme Court reverses the state court, concluding that to satisfy the Equal Protection Clause this court is not required to find that the statute would in fact accomplish its purpose but only that the legislature could rationally have decided that it would. Although the evidence before the legislature was debatable, the Court holds that the Minnesota court erred in substituting its judgment for that of the legislature. Finally, the Court concludes that the law does not violate the Commerce Clause. The Minnesota statute regulates even-handedly by prohibiting all plastic containers regardless of whether the milk, containers, or sellers are from outside the state. Moreover, the incidental burden imposed on interstate commerce is outweighted by the benefits resulting from the ban.

Justice Powell, in partial dissent, would remand the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court to consider the Commerce Clause issue. In dissent, Justice Stevens argues that the Supreme Court has no authority to reverse the state courts' independent judgment as to the wisdom or efficacy of the enactments of the state legislature.

[The issues raised in this case are discussed in Comment, Plastic Bans, Bottle Bills, and Comprehensive Container Legislation: Packaging Laws Get Mixed Reviews in State Courts, 9 ELR 10193 (1979) and Supreme Court Upholds Minnesota Ban on Plastic Containers, 11 ELR 10017 (Jan. 1981) — Ed.]

Counsel for Petitioner
Kenneth E. Raschke Jr., Ass't Attorney General; Warren Spannaus, Attorney General; Richard B. Allyn, Chief Deputy Attorney General; D. Douglas Blanke, Special Ass't Attorney General
102 State Capitol, St. Paul MN 55155
(612) 296-6196

Counsel for Respondents
Leonard J. Keyes, Douglas L. Skor, Andrea M. Bond
Briggs & Morgan
2200 First Nat'l Bank Bldg., St. Paul MN 55101
(612) 291-1215

Counsel for Amicus Curiae United States
Harlon L. Dalton, Harriet S. Shapiro, Ass'ts to the Solicitor General; Wade H. McCree, Solicitor General; Louis F. Claiborne, Deputy Solicitor General
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-4283

James W. Moorman, Ass't Attorney General; Jacques B. Gelin, Richard James Lazarus, Anne H. Shields
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2701

JUSTICE REHNQUIST took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.