US Supreme Court upholds Vermont's landmark labeling law

Legislation will protect public health, environment from mercury pollution; could set national precedent

provided by Mercury Policy Project

n June 10, the US Supreme Court denied the National Electrical Manufacturers Association's last-ditch attempt to have Vermont's 1998 landmark labeling law declared unconstitutional. Vermont's Mercury Reduction Act requires manufacturers to label mercury-added products sold in Vermont. The labeling must inform the user that the product contains mercury and that it is illegal to dispose of it in trash.

    “This is a resounding victory for all Vermonters – and perhaps for citizens around the world – who have a right-to-know that fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury and must be recycled,” said Michael T. Bender, Director of the Mercury Policy Project. “The only way to keep mercury out of our food is to keep it out of our global environment.”

    NEMA challenged Vermont's law in 1999, claiming it violated their members' right not to disclose information. NEMA said the law violated the Constitution's Commerce Clause by imposing an undue financial burden and interfering with interstate trade. According to NEMA, “lamps are manufactured and labeled for national markets, not local markets,” and said that Vermont “would purport to dictate worldwide lamp labeling requirements.”

    “I applaud the efforts of Attorney General William Sorrel and the bill's sponsor, former state senator Elizabeth Ready, for demonstrating the environmental leadership that Vermont is known for worldwide,” said Bender. “Clearly it's time for lamp makers to take responsibility for not only labeling lamps sold in Vermont, but across New England – Connecticut has just adopted similar legislation – and around the globe.”

    In November 1999, US District Court Judge Garvan Murtha issued a preliminary injunction releasing lamp manufacturers – including General Electric, Osram-Slyvania and Phillips – from the labeling requirement. On subsequent appeal by the Vermont Attorneys General (and with friends-of-the-court support filed by Alaska, California, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma and New York) the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York denied NEMA's appeal, setting the stage for NEMA's final appeal to the US Supreme Court – and subsequent denial.

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