March 2, 2012
The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to “Regulate…commerce among the several States.”
The phrase has been shortened with the passage of time to “the power to regulate interstate commerce,” and this “Commerce Clause” is one of the most expansive legislative powers bestowed to Congress.
But what exactly does “interstate commerce” mean?
The Supreme Court first answered that question 188 years ago today, in deciding the landmark case Gibbons v. Ogden.
Gibbons involved a clash between state and federal powers.
The New York state legislature granted to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton exclusive navigation rights of all the waters within the jurisdiction of the state, which rights were subsequently licensed to Aaron Ogden.
Thomas Gibbons, meanwhile, operated a competing steamboat service licensed by U.S. Congress that ran between New Jersey and New York City.
Ogden cried foul to the NY state courts, which agreed with him, and enjoined Gibbons from operating his service.
Gibbons appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who sided with him.
Ogden argued that since his license only applied to waters strictly within the boundaries of the state of New York, the Commerce Clause didn’t apply.
According to Ogden, the extent of Congress’s power started and ended at the state boundary lines.
Once Gibbons crossed the border into New York waters, Congress’s authority ended.
The Court disagreed, finding that Congress’s Commerce Clause powers would be meaningless if they only included the power to regulate state borders:
Instead, the Court read “commerce” broadly, finding that such power “extends to every species of commercial intercourse between the United States and foreign nations, and among the several States” (“intercourse” here meaning connections or dealings).
Thus, since Congress had the sole power to regulate navigation between New York and New Jersey – a power it exercised in granting a license to Gibbons – New York had no power to control exclusive navigation rights within the state since such interfered with Congress’s rights.
“Commerce,” the Court said, “does not stop at the external boundary of a State.”
For 71 years following Gibbons, the Court espoused an expansive view of the Commerce Clause, routinely striking down state legislation that interfered with the Clause.
The trend ended with 1895’s U.S. v. E. C. Knight, which itself marked the beginning of a 42 year reversal that saw the limitation of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause for the first time since the ratification of the Constitution.
This course was abruptly reversed again with 1937’s National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, and it was this reversal that allowed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to exist.
This new trend of an expansive Commerce Clause interpretation was also responsible for several civil rights wins at the Supreme Court, such as 1964’s Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. and 1969’s Daniel v. Paul.
Both of these cases are notable in that the Court upholds Congress’s use of the Commerce Clause to prohibit segregation at private facilities operated completely within the borders of a single state because the facilities served customers from out-of-state.
The Rehnquist Court, and subsequently, the Roberts Court, has taken a considerably narrower view, a movement that began with 1995’s U.S. v. Lopez.
The Commerce Clause, as many know, is at the center of the legal battle over 2010’s Affordable Care Act.
Despite the congressional regulatory powers employed in the Act being well within the historical bounds of Supreme Court jurisprudence, there is still debate as to whether the Roberts Court will use the legal challenges as an opportunity to further dismantle Congress’s Commerce Clause powers.
If the Clause’s history that began with Gibbons shows anything, it’s that the Supreme Court routinely reverses course on its interpretation of congressional power to regulate interstate commerce.
Thus, it will only be a matter of time until the Court once again abruptly flips its ideology and adopts a broad view of Commerce Clause powers.