Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co.
449 U.S. 456 (1981)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456 (1981)

Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co.

No. 79-1171

Argued November 3, 1980

Decided January 21, 1981

449 U.S. 456

Syllabus

For the stated purposes of promoting resource conservation, easing solid waste disposal problems, and conserving energy, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a statute banning the retail sale of milk in plastic nonreturnable, nonrefillable containers, but permitting such sale in other nonreturnable, nonrefillable containers, such as paperboard cartons. Respondents filed suit in Minnesota District Court, seeking to enjoin enforcement of the statute on constitutional grounds. The District Court held that the statute violated, inter alia, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause. Finding that "the evidence conclusively demonstrate[d] that the discrimination against plastic nonrefillables [was] not rationally related to the Act's objectives," the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed on the equal protection ground without reaching the Commerce Clause issue.

Held:

1. The ban on plastic nonreturnable milk containers bears a rational relation to the State's objectives, and must be sustained under the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 449 U. S. 461-470.

(a) The Equal Protection Clause does not deny Minnesota the authority to ban one type of milk container conceded to cause environmental problems merely because another already established type is permitted to continue in use. Whether in fact the statute will promote more environmentally desirable milk packaging is not the question. The Equal Protection Clause is satisfied if the Minnesota Legislature could rationally have decided that its ban on plastic milk jugs might foster greater use of environmentally desirable alternatives. Pp. 449 U. S. 465-466.

(b) The fact that the state legislature, having concluded that nonreturnable, nonrefillable milk containers pose environmental hazards, decided to ban the most recent entry in the field, and thus, in effect, "grandfathered" paperboard containers, at least temporarily, does not make the ban on plastic containers arbitrary or irrational. Cf. New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U. S. 297. Pp. 449 U. S. 466-468.

(c) Where the evidence as to whether the statute would help to conserve energy was "at least debatable," the Minnesota Supreme Court erred in substituting its judgment for that of the legislature by finding, contrary to the legislature, that the production of plastic nonrefillable

Page 449 U. S. 457

containers required less energy than production of paper containers. Pp. 449 U. S. 468-69.

(d) Similarly, the Minnesota Supreme Court erred in finding, contrary to the legislature's finding based on a reputable study, that plastic milk jugs take up less space in landfills and present fewer solid waste disposal problems than do paperboard containers. Pp. 449 U. S. 469-470.

2. The statute does not violate the Commerce Clause as constituting an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. Pp. 449 U. S. 470-474.

(a) The statute does not discriminate between interstate and intrastate commerce, but regulates evenhandedly by prohibiting all milk retailers from selling their products in plastic containers, without regard to whether the milk, the containers, or the sellers are from outside the State. Pp. 449 U. S. 471-472.

(b) The incidental burden imposed on interstate commerce by the statute is not excessive in relation to the putative local benefits. Milk products may continue to move freely across the Minnesota border, and since most dairies package their products in more than one type of container, the inconvenience of having to conform to different packaging requirements in Minnesota and the surrounding States should be slight. Even granting that the out-of-state plastics industry is burdened relatively more heavily than the Minnesota pulpwood industry, this burden is not "clearly excessive" in light of the substantial state interest in promoting conservation of energy and other natural resources and easing solid waste disposal problems. These local benefits amply support Minnesota's decision under the Commerce Clause. Pp. 449 U. S. 472-474.

289 N.W.2d 79, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 449 U. S. 474. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 449 U. S. 477. REHNQUIST, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 449 U. S. 458

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Primary Holding

It is constitutional for a state to prohibit sales of products packed in certain types of containers based on environmental reasons.

Facts

The Minnesota legislature found that plastic disposable containers were harmful to the environment, while paperboard containers offered a less harmful alternative. Consequently, it prohibited the use of plastic disposable containers for the sale of dairy products. Clover owned equipment that was used to make plastic containers that it in turn used to sell its products. It argued that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause as well as the Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine. The state courts ruled that the statute was unconstitutional, although they differed regarding the law's actual purpose.

Opinions

Majority

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

The law does not discriminate against out-of-state sellers because it applies the same bans to intrastate sellers, and it is not designed to protect the state economy. Therefore, it does not violate the Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine unless the burden on interstate commerce is disproportionate to local benefits. It is easy to use paperboard containers, and the state benefits from reducing the solid waste for disposal and from aiding its pulpwood industry.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)

Dissent

  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Recused

  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

Case Commentary

When a statute is not discriminatory on its face, the test under the dormant Commerce Clause requires balancing burdens against benefits. The state did not seem to have a hidden protectionist intent, and its interest in preserving the environment was justifiable. It was not unreasonable to expect companies to assume the minor costs of adjusting their products to meet the rule.

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