5 Philly cases that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court — and their impact on the nation

The current dispute over Catholic foster parents could set precedent.

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Jarek Tuszyński / Wikimedia Commons
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It’s a rare occurrence for the City of Philadelphia to make an appearance on the national judicial stage, but it’s happening again soon.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on a legal battle between the city and a Catholic foster agency that refuses to place children with same-sex couples. The ruling will likely set a national precedent for nondiscrimination as it pertains to religious institutions.

Nationwide, the high court hears about 1% of the roughly 7,000 cases it’s asked to review each year, so only a handful of Philly-related cases have seen the light of day. But the cases that did make it through were impactful — helping set federal rules on infrastructure, eminent domain and, of course, trash.

As the fostering case moves forward, we’re taking a look back. Here are five Philly cases that made it to the Supreme Court, and what they decided.

1865: Cities can build bridges when they want to

In pre-Civil War Philly, the Schuylkill River was used mostly as a thoroughfare for transporting coal. It divided the main part of the city from West Philadelphia, a far-off land removed, to an extent, from urban life.

In the first half of the 19th century, Pennsylvania sought to change that. The state authorized the construction of a handful of bridges across the waterway. In 1857, the state passed a law to build a bridge one block south of Chestnut Street — a short distance from the property of a man by the last name of Gilman.

Gilman heard about the incoming bridge and sought to stop it in its tracks. The bridge, he argued, would prevent vessels of a certain size from accessing his dock, and it would hamper his coal business. Enter Gilman v. City of Philadelphia, decided by the Supreme Court in 1865.

How’d the justices react? They told Gilman, in no uncertain terms, to get over it. They said the city and the state have the right to build — especially when it’s in the interest of the public good. Congress has the right to intervene in cases of injustice, they said, but this situation didn’t merit that.

Said Justice Noah Swayne at the time: “The injury to the property of the complainants will be entirely consequential. A large city is rising up on the opposite side of the river. The new bridge is called for by public convenience.”

Thanks to this decision, we now have the Grays Ferry Bridge, which is currently being renovated.

1903: Cities can tax interstate commerce

It’s the turn of the 20th century, and the closest thing to your smartphone is the telegraph — a point-to-point messaging system that got its start in the 1840s. The Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company was a major retailer, and the company set up telegraph lines along railroads all over the United States.

In 1903, the AIM of yesteryear was fined roughly $3,000 by the city of Philadelphia for engaging in interstate commerce, aka selling goods and services over state lines without paying the associated fees. The telegraph company took it to court, hoping to wiggle their way out of the fine.

When the Supreme Court heard Atlantic & Pacific Tel. Co. v. Philadelphia, the justices might as well have busted out tiny violins.

Justice David Brewer listed dozens of cases that had already gone over very similar issues. In his own words: “Few questions are more important or have been more embarrassing than those arising from the efforts of a state or its municipalities to increase their revenues by exactions from corporations engaged in carrying on interstate commerce.”

Translation: Why are we still talking about this? Just pay the bill.

The official decision determined that companies don’t *have* to engage in interstate commerce. But if they choose to, the government is allowed to tax them.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic & Pacific Telephone Company lost big — they had to pay back taxes, plus interest.

1917: Cities can seize land as long as they pay for it

About a decade into the 1900s, Philadelphia tried to seize land via eminent domain from Pennsylvania Hospital, the 8th and Spruce medical center, which at the time was what people called an “insane asylum.” The city hoped to build a street through the center of the property.

Pennsylvania Hospital had prepared for this moment. Hospital officials long believed that losing property would “injuriously affect the performance of its work,” so in the 1800s they lobbied the state to pass legislation that would make it illegal to build a roadway on their campus.

In 1854, the state legislature offered an annually renewing contract that, for a fee, would prevent through streets from being built.

More than 60 years later, when Philly came knocking, the deal was found to be contentious — the city never signed off on the agreement in the first place. So in Pennsylvania Hospital v City of Philadelphia (1917), the question became: Was that contract valid in the first place?

Short answer: No.

The Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain is such an important part of governing that there can’t be a check put on it like this. As long as you’re compensated for it, the government is allowed to take your land. Full stop.

This decision rendered the contract totally null, and streets, lanes and alleys were constructed through the Pennsylvania Hospital campus.

1957: Cities are allowed to give Black students an education

Among the richest Philadelphians in history was Stephen Girard, a philanthropist who after his death left a massive sum of money to run Girard College in Fairmount. The full-scholarship, 1st- through 12th-grade school was designed to serve the underprivileged — specifically “as many poor white male orphans…as the said income shall be adequate to maintain.”

Eventually, people realized that classification was discriminatory. Civil Rights icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cecil B. Moore let protests against the school’s refusal to accept people of color.

In February 1954, two Black students, last names Foust and Felder, applied to the school, and were denied explicitly because of their race. They took legal action in Orphans’ Court, which ruled against them, but the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. And since the city maintained the Girard Trust, it was named in the suit.

Ultimately in Pennsylvania v. Board of Trusts of the City of Philadelphia, the court ruled in favor of racial equality on the grounds that the policy violated the 14th Amendment.

Girard College was desegregated — and now serves a student body made up almost entirely of people of color.

1978: Philly can send its trash where it belongs…to NJ

At last, a case in which the City of Philadelphia is the one who’s doing the suing instead of getting sued!

Surprising no one, in the late 1970s, Philly was having some issues with trash. At the time, the city regularly delivered a bunch of its garbage to landfills in New Jersey. But the state to our right was getting fed up, sick of dealing with mounting waste from both Philadelphia and New York City.

So the N.J. legislature passed the Waste Control Act, which prohibited the import of trash from outside the state. Philadelphia sued, arguing that ran contrary to federal law.

The Supreme Court ended up agreeing with city officials. In the City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey of 1978, the justices said New Jersey’s exclusion of trash from other states violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.

Said Justice Potter Stewart: “We reject the state court’s suggestion that the banning of ‘valueless’ out-of-state wastes implicates no constitutional protection. Just as Congress has power to regulate the interstate movement of these wastes, states are not free from constitutional scrutiny when they restrict that movement.”

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