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NATIONAL FREIGHT v. LARSON

April 12, 1984

NATIONAL FREIGHT, INC., a New Jersey corporation, DART TRANSIT COMPANY, a Minnesota corporation, OWENS--ILLINOIS, INC., an Ohio corporation, and CONTINENTAL CAN COMPANY, INC., a Delaware corporation, Plaintiffs
v.
THOMAS D. LARSON, Secretary of Transportation, COL. DANIEL F. DUNN, Commissioner of State Police, LEROY S. ZIMMERMAN, Attorney General, and HON. RICHARD THORNBURGH, Governor, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HERMAN

I. INTRODUCTION

 Before us are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiffs are interstate shippers and carriers who desire to use 53-foot truck trailers throughout Pennsylvania without any limitations on the length of the truck tractor. Defendants argue that, pursuant to Pennsylvania's most recent amendment to its Vehicle Code, *fn1" 53-foot trailers cannot be used legally on any highway unless the overall length of the truck tractor and trailer is 60 feet. Plaintiffs claim that the portions of the Pennsylvania statutes which regulate overall length and trailer length conflict with the federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (STAA), 49 U.S.C. §§ 2301-2315, and are invalid under the Supremacy Clause.

 While the issues presented engender much public interest and debate, the constitutional aspects are not complicated. The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution provides that the laws of the United States "shall be the supreme Law of the Land, and Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." Const., Art. VI. The doctrine of federal supremacy is clear: any state law that conflicts with federal law must give way. This is particularly pertinent in the area of interstate commerce where:

 
[the] history of law has established beyond the slightest doubt that Congress has pre-eminent authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Art. 1, § 8, to legislate where activities affecting interstate commerce are concerned, to pre-empt those state laws in conflict with congressional enactments, and to prohibit state regulations concerning activities having a substantial effect on interstate commerce even in the absence of any contradictory congressional enactments.

 UNITED STATES v. STATE OF CONNECTICUT, 566 F. Supp. 571, 574 (D. Conn. 1983) (footnote omitted), aff'd., No. 83-6159 (2d Cir. Sept. 1, 1983), aff'd, 465 U.S. 1014, 52 U.S.L.W. 3610, 79 L. Ed. 2d 670, 104 S. Ct. 1263 (1984). *fn2"

 Once Congress has acted in an area, it is not for the courts to question whether the federal law is less reasonable than any state statute. Rather, it is the court's duty to interpret the federal statute and to determine whether any portion of a competing state statute is inconsistent with the federal provisions and must be stricken. It is this task we face with the Surface Transportation Assistance Act and Pennsylvania's recent truck tractor-trailer length limitations.

 II. THE COMPETING FEDERAL AND COMMONWEALTH STATUTES

 A. The Federal Statute

 On January 6, 1983, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (STAA), 49 U.S.C. § 2301-2315, was signed into law, to be effective by April 6, 1983. Section 411 of the Act, 49 U.S.C. § 2311, at first glance, appears to concern length limitations only as applied to federally assisted highways [the Designated Network]. *fn3" Plaintiffs make a strong argument, however, that subsection (b) affects all highways within a state and not just those within the Designated Network. To best understand this issue, therefore, it is necessary to examine the pertinent subsections of section 411.

 Subsection (a) provides that no state can enforce any regulation that imposes a vehicle length limitation of less than 48 feet on a semi-trailer unit operating in a tractor-semi-trailer combination on any segment of the Designated Network. *fn4" 49 U.S.C. § 2311(a).

 Subsection (b) clarifies subsection (a) by stating that any state length limitation enforced by a state under subsection (a) shall apply solely to a semi-trailer or trailer and not to the truck tractor. The statute further directs the following:

 
No State shall establish, maintain, or enforce any regulation of commerce which imposes an overall length limitation on commercial motor vehicles operating in truck-tractor semi-trailer or truck-tractor semi-trailer, trailer combinations. No State shall establish, maintain or enforce any regulation of commerce which has the effect of prohibiting the use of trailers or semi-trailers of such dimensions as those that were in actual and lawful use in such State on December 1, 1982. No State shall establish, maintain, or enforce any regulation of commerce which has the effect of prohibiting the use of existing trailers or semi-trailers, of up to twenty-eight and one-half feet in length, in a truck tractor ...

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