As this Blog is intended to highlight issues germane to appellate practice in our state and federal courts, our posts about decisions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals are usually focused on the Court’s discussion of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, the limits of the Court’s jurisdiction, and other issues pertinent to the practical side of appeals. But for all the attention we pay on this Blog to things like hearing transcripts and interlocutory appeals, it is important to remember that the main role of the North Carolina Court of Appeals is to examine, analyze and rule on substantive and oftentimes extremely complex issues of state and federal law. A good reminder of that came today in an opinion released in Waste Industries USA, Inc. v. State of North Carolina.
Authored by the Honorable Martha Geer, Waste Industries involved a constitutional challenge to North Carolina General Statute section 130A-295.6, which places limits on the size and location of solid waste landfills. The plaintiffs in the case contended that the statute violates the Commerce Clause and the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution because it allegedly discriminates against out of state waste. The trial court held that the legislation was constitutional and granted summary judgment to the defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.
For someone like me, who has not interacted with the Commerce Clause or Contract Clause since studying for the bar exam, reading the Waste Industries opinion was like travelling back in time to my 1L Con Law class. Judge Geer’s comprehensive analysis of Section 130A-295.6 is a veritable roadmap for determining the constitutionality of a piece of legislation and would not seem out of place in a Constitutional Law textbook. The opinion details the legislative history of the contested statute, reviewing the General Assembly’s articulated objectives and purposes and analyzing them with respect to possible discriminatory purpose under the Commerce Clause. Unable to find sufficient evidence in the record of any discriminatory purpose, the Court then analyzed whether the ultimate effect of the legislation was discriminatory. This analysis, which concluded that there was no discriminatory effect, included a brief discussion of whether strict scrutiny applied and whether there were justifications for the alleged restrictions and whether there were non-discriminatory alternatives.
Finally, the Court moved to a “rational basis” Commerce Clause analysis and considered whether the legislation was unconstitutional because of its incidental effects on interstate commerce. After a thorough discussion of the parties’ arguments on this issue, the Court concluded that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of forecasting evidence that would show that the that the legislation’s burden on interstate commerce clearly outweighed the State’s proffered legitimate purposes, and therefore the statute did not violate the Commerce Clause. This analysis concluded with the Court following the lead of the United States Supreme Court and declining to opine on the public policy debate as to whether increased costs of waste disposal outweighed benefits to the environment and public health.
The Court then analyzed the Contract Clause, and reached the same result—N.C.G.S. § 130A-295.6 does not violate the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution.
In all, the Court’s opinion spanned 47 pages. The Court spent a great deal of time dissecting the arguments of both the appellants and the appellees and giving each argument ample consideration. Although the decision in Waste Industries does not include any discussion of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, it still contained a valuable lesson for any appellate practitioner. For as much as we discuss the paramount importance of the sometimes overlooked issues in our postings on this Blog and focus on the cases where these issues appear, the vast majority of cases decided by the Appellate Courts are like Waste Industries, and decided on the substance of the arguments and the merits of the case. So while you are paying attention to all the little details that go into an appeal, don’t forget the most important detail of all: a compelling, well-reasoned, well-supported argument.