Washington — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that chemical companies cannot keep secret the health and safety data used in developing new pesticides. The public benefit of disclosing this information, the justices held, is more important than chemical manufacturers' right to trade secrets.
At issue in the case of Monsanto v. Ruckelshaus were key amendments to a federal pesticide law passed in 1978 that were designed to speed availability of new products while ensuring protection for the public.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must certify that new pesticides are safe before they can be sold. But under the '78 amendments, manufacturers with new products similar to pesticides already on the market didn't have to conduct their own safety research. They could simply cite the tests made on the already approved chemical, thus saving themselves much time and money.
Monsanto, DuPont, and other large chemical companies did not like this development one bit. It made things easier for their smaller competitors, who could scramble quickly to market with imitations of the big companies' products.
Developing pesticides, Monsanto argued in a legal document, is a costly and time-consuming business. Meanwhile, rivals were getting a ''free ride,'' the company said.
Last year, a US district court judge agreed with Monsanto and held that the whole thing was an unconstitutional taking of property.
But the EPA appealed the case to the Supreme Court, saying that without the policy, ''pest control may be more expensive, more hazardous, or both.'' Striking down this portion of the law, said EPA, would further delay the approval of some 2,200 pesticide applications now blocked by legal action.
In any case, big companies have adequate protection for their property, EPA said, since they are allowed 10 years' exclusive use of any new active ingredients in their pesticides.
In its 8-to-0 ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the EPA. Disclosure of this information, wrote Justice Harry Blackmun for the court, is related to a legitimate government interest.
''A voluntary submission of data by an applicant in exchange for the economic advantages of (EPA approval) can hardly be called a taking (of property),'' Justice Blackmun wrote. But the high court ruled that companies may be entitled to compensation for the disclosure of their safety data, if it was filed between 1972 and 1978, when the law was somewhat different.
In another decision Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down state limits on how much money charities can spend on fund raising.
The 5-to-4 ruling invalidated a Maryland law that says charities can only spend 25 percent of their budget on fund raising and administration. A number of other states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have similar laws.
The tough Maryland law was drawn up after the 1976 disclosure of questionable fund raising by the Pallotine Fathers.
The group aggressively solicited money, ostensibly for charity, but used it for their own business ventures.
Justice Blackmun, writing for the court, said that the Maryland statute is too broad and impinges on First Amendment rights. It ''operates on the fundamentally mistaken premise that high solicitation costs are an accurate measure of fraud,'' held Blackmun.
The dissenters in this case included Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Lewis Powell, Sandra Day O'Connor, and William Rehnquist. In the minority opinion, Justice Rehnquist said the law is merely ''an economic regulation.'' The law serves ''a number of legitimate and substantial government interests,'' he wrote. It ''ensures that funds solicited from the public for a charitable purpose will not be excessively diverted to private pecuniary gain. In the process, (it) encourages the public to give by allowing the public to live with the confidence that money designed for charity will be spent for charitable purposes.''