401 U.S. 493 (1971), 41, Ohio v. Wyandotte Chemicals Corp.

Docket Nº:No. 41, Orig.
Citation:401 U.S. 493, 91 S.Ct. 1005, 28 L.Ed.2d 256
Party Name:Ohio v. Wyandotte Chemicals Corp.
Case Date:March 23, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 493

401 U.S. 493 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1005, 28 L.Ed.2d 256



Wyandotte Chemicals Corp.

No. 41, Orig.

United States Supreme Court

March 23, 1971

Argued January 18, 1971



The State of Ohio filed a motion for leave to file a bill of complaint invoking the Court's original jurisdiction against defendant companies, incorporated in Michigan, Delaware, and Canada, to abate an alleged nuisance resulting in the contamination and pollution of Lake Erie from the dumping of mercury into its tributaries. The Court declines to exercise its jurisdiction in this case since the issues are bottomed on local law that the Ohio courts are competent to consider; several national and international bodies are actively concerned with the pollution problems involved here; and the nature of the case requires the resolution of complex, novel, and technical factual questions that do not implicate important problems of federal law, which are the primary responsibility of the Court. Pp. 495-505.


HARLAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACK, BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 505.

Page 494

HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

By motion for leave to file a bill of complaint, Ohio seeks to invoke this Court's original jurisdiction. Because of the importance and unusual character of the issues tendered, we set the matter for oral argument, inviting the Solicitor General to participate and to file a brief on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae. For reasons that follow, we deny the motion for leave to file.

The action, for abatement of a nuisance, is brought on behalf of the State and its citizens, and names as defendants Wyandotte Chemicals Corp. (Wyandotte), Dow Chemical Co. (Dow America), and Dow Chemical Company of Canada, Ltd. (Dow Canada). Wyandotte is incorporated in Michigan and maintains its principal office and place of business there. Dow America is incorporated in Delaware, has its principal office and place of business in Michigan, and owns all the stock of Dow Canada. Dow Canada is incorporated, and does business, in Ontario. A majority of Dow Canada's directors are residents of the United States.

The complaint alleges that Dow Canada and Wyandotte have each dumped mercury into streams whose courses ultimately reach Lake Erie, thus contaminating and polluting that lake's waters, vegetation, fish, and wildlife, and that Dow America is jointly responsible for the acts of its foreign subsidiary. [91 S.Ct. 1008] Assuming the State's

Page 495

ability to prove these assertions, Ohio seeks a decree: (1) declaring the introduction of mercury into Lake Erie's tributaries a public nuisance; (2) perpetually enjoining these defendants from introducing mercury into Lake Erie or its tributaries; (3) requiring defendants either to remove the mercury from Lake Erie or to pay the costs of its removal into a fund to be administered by Ohio and used only for that purpose; (4) directing defendants to pay Ohio monetary damages for the harm done to Lake Erie, its fish, wildlife, and vegetation, and the citizens and inhabitants of Ohio.

Original jurisdiction is said to be conferred on this Court by Art. III of the Federal Constitution. Section 2, cl. 1, of that Article, provides:

The judicial Power shall extend . . . to Controversies . . . between a State and Citizens of another State . . . and between a State . . . and foreign . . . Citizens or Subjects.

Section 2, cl. 2, provides: "In all Cases . . . in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction." Finally, 28 U.S.C. § 1251(b) provides:

The Supreme Court shall have original but not exclusive jurisdiction of . . . (3) All actions or proceedings by a State against the citizens of another State or against aliens.

While we consider that Ohio's complaint does state a cause of action that falls within the compass of our original jurisdiction, we have concluded that this Court should nevertheless decline to exercise that jurisdiction.


That we have jurisdiction seems clear enough.1 Beyond doubt, the complaint, on its face, reveals the existence of a

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genuine "case or controversy" between one State and citizens of another, as well as a foreign subject. Diversity of citizenship is absolute. Nor is the nature of the cause of action asserted a bar to the exercise of our jurisdiction. While we have refused to entertain, for example, original actions designed to exact compliance with a State's penal laws, Wisconsin v. Pelican Ins. Co., 127 U.S. 265 (1888), or that seek to embroil this tribunal in "political questions," Mississippi v. Johnson, 4 Wall. 475 (1867); Georgia v. Stanton, 6 Wall. 50 (1868), this Court has often adjudicated controversies between States and between a State and citizens of another State seeking to abate a nuisance that exists in one State yet produces noxious consequences in another. See Missouri v. Illinois, 180 U.S. 208 (1901) (complaint filed), 200 U.S. 496 (1906) (final judgment); Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co., 206 U.S. 230 (1907); New York v. New Jersey, 256 U.S. 296 (1921); New Jersey v. New York City, 283 U.S. 473 (1931). In short, precedent leads almost ineluctably to the conclusion that we are empowered to resolve this dispute in the first instance.2

[91 S.Ct. 1009] Ordinarily, the foregoing would suffice to settle the issue presently under consideration: whether Ohio should be granted leave to file its complaint. For it is a time-honored

Page 497

maxim of the Anglo-American common law tradition that a court possessed of jurisdiction generally must exercise it. Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, 404 (1821). Nevertheless, although it may initially have been contemplated that this Court would always exercise its original jurisdiction when properly called upon to do so, it seems evident to us that changes in the American legal system and the development of American society have rendered untenable, as a practical matter, the view that this Court must stand willing to adjudicate all or most legal disputes that may arise between one State and a citizen or citizens of another, even though the dispute may be one over which this Court does have original jurisdiction.

As our social system has grown more complex, the States have increasingly become enmeshed in a multitude of disputes with persons living outside their borders. Consider, for example, the frequency with which States and nonresidents clash over the application of state laws concerning taxes, motor vehicles, decedents' estates, business torts, government contracts, and so forth. It would indeed be anomalous were this Court to be held out as a potential principal forum for settling such controversies. The simultaneous development of "long-arm jurisdiction" means, in most instances, that no necessity impels us to perform such a role. And the evolution of this Court's responsibilities in the American legal system has brought matters to a point where much would be sacrificed, and little gained, by our exercising original jurisdiction over issues bottomed on local law. This Court's paramount responsibilities to the national system lie almost without exception in the domain of federal law. As the impact on the social structure of federal common, statutory, and constitutional law has expanded, our attention has necessarily been drawn more and more to such matters. We have no claim

Page 498

to special competence in dealing with the numerous conflicts between States and nonresident individuals that raise no serious issues of federal law.

This Court is, moreover, structured to perform as an appellate tribunal, ill-equipped for the task of factfinding, and so forced, in original cases, awkwardly to play the role of factfinder without actually presiding over the introduction of evidence. Nor is the problem merely our lack of qualifications for many of these tasks potentially within the purview of our original jurisdiction; it is compounded by the fact that, for every case in which we might be called upon to determine the facts and apply unfamiliar legal norms, we would unavoidably be reducing the attention we could give to those matters of federal law and national import as to which we are the primary overseers.

Thus, we think it apparent that we must recognize

the need [for] the exercise of a sound discretion in order to protect this Court from an abuse of the opportunity to resort to its original jurisdiction in the enforcement by States of claims against citizens of other States.

Massachusetts v. Missouri, 308 U.S. 1, 19 (1939), opinion of Chief Justice Hughes. See also Georgia v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 324 U.S. 439, 464 465 (1945), and id. at 469-471 (dissenting opinion).3 We [91 S.Ct. 1010] believe, however, that

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the focus of concern embodied in the above-quoted statement of Chief Justice Hughes should be somewhat refined. In our opinion, we may properly exercise such discretion, not simply to shield this Court from noisome, vexatious, or unfamiliar tasks, but also, and we believe principally, as a technique for promoting and furthering the assumptions and value choices that underlie the current role of this Court in the federal system. Protecting this Court, per se, is, at best, a secondary consideration. What gives rise to the necessity for recognizing such discretion is preeminently the diminished societal concern in our function as a court of original jurisdiction and the enhanced importance of our role as the final federal appellate court. A broader view of the scope and purposes of our discretion would inadequately take account of the general duty of courts to exercise that jurisdiction they possess. Thus, at this stage, we go no further than to hold that, as a...

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