State Laws and the Commerce Clause
The hypothetical case to be discussed involves Utah passing a law requiring trucks to have backup cameras and warning lights. Nevada and California have similar safety laws and these laws do appear to reduce the number of accidents, but other states do not require trucks to install these safety measures. Can Utah require trucks from states that do not require backup cameras and warning lights to comply with its laws, or would that violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution?
Initially the Commerce Clause was drafted by Congress to regulate railroad companies, the United States’ first “big business” concern, and to keep them from forming a monopoly that would squelch smaller companies’ ability to turn a profit (or from misbehaviors such as refusing to transport a shipment of newsprint to a particular newspaper’s printing company after that newspaper’s editor published a critical article about the railroad). The Interstate Commerce Clause was also intended to prevent the larger railroad companies from offering preferential pricing to certain large shippers while discriminating economically against smaller businesses and farmers. In short, it was intended to safeguard against unfair pricing practices (and one solution was to require all rates to be made public), and to keep states from trying to influence interstate commerce in such a way that one state benefited unfairly at the expense of another; later, the rules initially designed for railroads were applied to other similar industries like trucking (Theodore Roosevelt Center, n.d.). States’ interference with trade had previously been a bone of contention during the Civil War, and, in part, the Commerce Clause was intended to establish a federal law that would serve as a type of simplifying guideline for different states to use to resolve squabbles over interstate commerce-related disagreements and price-gouging. Or, more simply put, the power of individual states, unbound by a guidelines intended to protect national economic interests, could stifle progress and impede commerce; the Commerce Clause was intended to make things more fair by attempting to level the playing field for all businesspeople who were required to deal with clients or companies in more than one state (Onecle, 2012).
The Commerce Clause would be unlikely to interfere with Utah (and Nevada and California) and the new truck safety device laws unless it appeared to cause undue economic hardship to trucking companies that originated from other states. States are allowed to make their own regulations without interference from the federal government up to and until the point where those laws appear to be interfering with or unduly burdening companies engaging in interstate commerce (National Paralegal College, 2007). Whereas states have the right to regulate its domestic commerce, it is not legitimate for states to insist on burdensome regulations or to favor commerce that unfairly directs economic advantages to citizens of one particular state while depriving citizens of another state the same benefits. If Utah’s safety device laws do not unduly penalize out-of-state trucking companies, it is likely that they will be allowed to enforce those laws freely.
In 1945, SCOTUS determined in Southern Pacific Co. v. Arizona, 325 U.S. 761, 65 S. Ct. 1515, 89 L. Ed. 1915 (1945) that a safety measure adopted by Arizona that tried to limit the number of cars pulled by a single freight train or passenger train may have had good intentions (to reduce accidents) but, in practice, all trains entering Arizona that had more than the allowed number of cars were forced to pause at the borders of the state and split those cars into two trains and also round up an extra crew. SCOTUS determined that these safety measures placed an undue burden on railway companies, and that they may actually potentially have contributed to more accidents by virtue of increasing the number of trains operating simultaneously. A more efficient system was found to be more valuable by the Court than a safety law, no matter how well-intentioned, which might have had only a negligible effect and which placed undue interstate commerce-related burdens on railway companies.
Another (federal) court cited safety concerns when applying the Commerce Clause to decide a dispute between Delaware and Maryland companies over air pollution. In United States v. Bishop Processing Co., 287 F. Supp. 624 (D.C. Md. 1968), the Maryland-based Bishop company did not have any devices in place to curb the unpleasant odors and emissions from its fat-rendering processes. Bishop argued that it did not participate in interstate commerce, so it felt that Congress should not be allowed to cite the Commerce Clause in order to place restrictions on how they conducted business. The Court disagreed, deciding that air pollution drifting across the state line into Delaware was a legitimate complaint which would negatively effect other businesses outside of Maryland: smelly, noxious air discourages both residential and commercial development, causes property values to plummet, and was, in this case, a violation of the Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 7401 et seq. ) (Farlex, n.d.).
In a case involving a dispute between Illinois and Arkansas over mudflap shapes (Bibb v. Navajo Freight Lines, Inc. (No. 94)), SCOTUS again took into account the difficulty involved in adhering to the different state’s mudflap laws when Illinois and Arizona both forbade the style of mudflap the other state favored. Bibb did not involve any discriminatory pricing issues or clear attempts to interfere with interstate commerce directly to favor in-state businesses, but it did place compliance-related burdens on trucking companies which operated in both Illinois and Arkansas. Citing the Southern Pacific v. Arizona case about Arizona’s train car safety guidelines that had placed undue burdens on railway companies by requiring all trains to be restricted to a certain number of cars, which led to scrambling at the borders to comply, SCOTUS noted that it took at least two and as many as four hours of labor to swap straight (conventional) mudflaps for contoured mudguards, that the flaps were attached by welding (which would be a hazard if the truck was hauling flammable or explosive cargo, and which would require even more of a delay to unload and reload the trucks), and that the alleged “safer” qualities of the curved mudguards was not conclusively proven to the Court’s satisfaction (Cornell University Law School, Douglas, n.d.). This implies that if a trucking company brought suit against Utah for requiring it to purchase safety devices, SCOTUS would have to determine if the Utah law placed an undue financial burden on trucking companies to comply, and also demand to see proof that backup cameras and warning lights did, indeed, directly contribute to increased safety and fewer accidents (as Utah was asserting).
SCOTUS cited the Commerce Clause again when making decision in Kassel v. Consolidated Freightways Corporation of Delaware (No. 79-1320) and Raymond Motor Transportation, Inc. v. Rice, 434 U.S. 429 (1978). In Kassel, the dispute was over Iowa law regulating truck trailer dimensions. Iowa, unlike other states in its geographical proximity, banned 65-foot-long double-trailer trucks while citing safety concerns. Iowa allowed 60-foot-long double trailers and 55-foot-long single trucks, but felt that the extra five feet of a 65-foot trailer made the trailer more dangerous and caused more road damage than the other, legal, truck trailer types. Again, SCOTUS noted that requiring trucking companies to unload and load cargo from prohibited 65-foot doubles into Iowa-approved trailer types placed an undue burden on those companies and thus interfered inappropriately with interstate commerce (Cornell University Law School, Kassel, n.d.). In Raymond, Wisconsin had the same restrictions as Iowa, and also prohibited 65-foot-long double trailers. SCOTUS again sited operational disruptions that were necessary if trucking companies were to comply with Wisconsin’s law, and added that the Court was not satisfied that 65-foot doubles were actually significantly more dangerous or damaging to roadways as the other acceptable trailer types, and that this was an undue burden on trucking companies when the majority of the major long haul truck businesses had begun to switch over to the 65-footers (Justia, n.d.).
If Utah’s safety device guidelines did not impede the smooth flow of goods between states could demonstrate that backup cameras and warning lights did indisputably reduce accidents and improve safety, and could show that complying with these safety device laws did not place an undue financial burden on truckers from states that did not require those safety devices, Utah might prevail in court if challenged, because SCOTUS would prefer not to interfere with individual states’ regulatory efforts and laws. The decision in South Carolina State Highway Department v. Barnwell Brothers, Inc. (1938) upheld South Carolina’s attempt to regulate the weight and size of trucks on its highways, citing concerns about safety and highway wear-and-tear, because these regulations would not favor intrastate trucks over interstate trucks (Lawnix, n.d.); that indicates that Utah would just have to demonstrate that it was not being unduly restrictive only to out-of-state trucks and that its concerns were valid. If, however, Utah was unable to prove its assertions and SCOTUS felt that interstate commerce would be unduly affected or that companies would have to deal with unreasonable restrictions, additional costs and delays, Utah would lose.
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