New Energy Co. v. Limbach
486 U.S. 269 (1988)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

New Energy Co. v. Limbach, 486 U.S. 269 (1988)

New Energy Company of Indiana v. Limbach

No. 87-654

Argued March 29, 1988

Decided May 31, 1988

486 U.S. 269

Syllabus

An Ohio statute awards a tax credit against the Ohio motor vehicle fuel sales tax for each gallon of ethanol sold (as a component of gasohol) by fuel dealers, but only if the ethanol is produced in Ohio or, if produced in another State, to the extent that State grants similar tax advantages to ethanol produced in Ohio. Appellant, an Indiana limited partnership, manufactures ethanol in Indiana, which has no sales tax exemption for ethanol, wherefore appellant's ethanol sold in Ohio is ineligible for the Ohio tax credit. Appellant sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the Ohio Court of Common Pleas of Franklin County, alleging that the Ohio tax credit violates the Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution by discriminating against out-of-state ethanol producers. The court denied relief; the Ohio Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed.

Held: The Ohio statute discriminates against interstate commerce in violation of the Commerce Clause. Pp. 486 U. S. 273-280.

(a) The Clause's "negative" aspect, directly limiting the States' power to discriminate against interstate commerce, prohibits economic protectionism -- that is, regulatory measures designed to benefit in-state economic interests by burdening out-of-state competitors. Thus, state statutes, such as Ohio's, that clearly discriminate against interstate commerce are invalid, unless the discrimination is demonstrably justified by a valid factor unrelated to economic protectionism. There is no merit to appellees' argument that the availability of the Ohio tax credit to some out-of-state manufacturers (those in States that give tax advantages to Ohio-produced ethanol) shows that the Ohio provision is not discriminatory but, rather, is likely to promote interstate commerce by encouraging other States to enact similar tax advantages that will spur the interstate sale of ethanol. Discriminatory tax treatment for out-of-state goods is no more validated by the promise to remove it if reciprocity is accepted than would be the categorical exclusion of out-of-state goods. Nor is there any merit to appellees' argument that the Ohio statute should not be considered discrimination against interstate commerce because apparently only one Ohio ethanol manufacturer (appellee South Point Ethanol) is benefited by it, and only one out-of-state manufacturer (appellant) is clearly disadvantaged. Where discrimination is patent, as

Page 486 U. S. 270

it is here, neither a widespread advantage to in-state interests nor a widespread disadvantage to out-of-state competitors need be shown. Moreover, the "market participant" doctrine -- under which the negative Commerce Clause's limitations apply only to a State's acting in its governmental capacity, not to its acting in the capacity of a market participant -- has no application here. The state action at issue is not Ohio's purchase or sale of ethanol, but its assessment and computation of taxes. Although the tax credit scheme has the purpose and effect of subsidizing a particular industry, that does not transform it into a form of state participation in the free market. Pp. 486 U. S. 273-278.

(b) The clear discrimination in this case cannot be validated by the justifications advanced by appellees: health and commerce. Appellees argue that the Ohio statute encourages use of ethanol to reduce harmful exhaust emissions, both in Ohio and in surrounding States whose polluted atmosphere may reach Ohio. There is no reason to suppose, however, that ethanol produced in a State that does not offer tax advantages to ethanol produced in Ohio is less healthy, and thus should have its importation into Ohio suppressed by denial of the otherwise standard tax credit; and ethanol use outside Ohio is just as effectively fostered by other States' subsidizing ethanol production or sale in some fashion other than by giving a tax credit to Ohio-produced ethanol. Thus, health is not the purpose of the Ohio provision, but is merely an occasional and accidental effect of achieving what is its purpose, favorable tax treatment for Ohio-produced ethanol. Essentially the same reasoning applies to the asserted justification that Ohio's reciprocity requirement is designed to increase commerce in ethanol by encouraging other States to enact ethanol subsidies. Pp. 486 U. S. 278-280.

32 Ohio St. 3d 206, 513 N.E.2d 258, reversed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 486 U. S. 271

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