Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Groves v. Slaughter IV: Some Commerce Clause Background

Before discussing the various opinions in Groves v. Slaughter, I'm going to do something I probably should have done before I reviewed the arguments of counsel: provide a very brief description of some of the issues relating to the Commerce Clause that members of the Supreme Court were wrestling with during this period.

One group of issues generally concerned whether the Commerce Clause left the states any role in regulating international and interstate commerce. The Commerce Clause itself granted to the federal government the power to regulate that commerce. It did not by its terms, however, assert that the states could not also regulate that commerce. Did that mean that the states had concurrent power to do so? A more "nationalist" judge might say that the Commerce Clause arose from a need for uniformity, and thus implicitly deprived the states of power. A more "localist" judge could point to the fact that other provisions of the Constitution showed that, when the framers desired to deprive the states of a particular power, they said so explicitly. They had not done so here.

Another aspect of the same question, or another way of looking at it, was whether it made a difference that Congress had or had not actually used its power under the Commerce Clause. Assume, for example, that New York passed a law regulating interstate commerce by granting exclusive licenses to certain coasting vessels to enter its ports. Assume further that the federal government had passed a statute that established a federal licensing system. In that event, a judge would be more inclined to say that the New York law was unconstitutional because it contradicted, undermined and frustrated the federal licensing system.

But what if the federal government had not passed any law relating to the licensing of coasting vessels? Would the New York law still be unconstitutional? After all, it was not frustrating any federal scheme. However, some more "nationalist" judges argued that the Commerce Clause gave Congress exclusive power over interstate and international commerce even where Congress had chosen not to exercise its power. In very famous dicta in a case called Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Chief Justice Marshall had suggested

that, as the word "to regulate" implies in its nature, full power over the thing to be regulated, it excludes, necessarily, the action of all others that would perform the same operation on the same thing. . . . There is great force in this argument, and the court is not satisfied that it has been refuted.

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