Cooley v. Board of Wardens – Case Brief Summary

Summary of Cooley v. Board of Wardens, 53 U.S. (12 How.) 299, 13 L. Ed. 996 (1851).

Facts

A 1789 Act of Congress provided that the pilots of ships in the interior waters of the United States would continue to be regulated in conformity with the existing laws of the states, or with laws enacted by the states in the future, until Congress provided otherwise through legislation. In 1803 Pennsylvania enacted a law requiring ships entering or leaving the port of Philadelphia to engage a local pilot to guide them through the harbor and imposed a penalty for noncompliance.

The Board of Wardens (P) brought an action against Cooley for violating the Pennsylvania law. Cooley asserted that the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional in light of the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3). He argued that Congress’ commerce power gave it exclusive jurisdiction over interstate commerce and Congress could not delegate or confer that authority to the States. The magistrate found for the plaintiff and the Court of Common Pleas and Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issues

  1. Does the Commerce Clause deprive the States of all power to regulate interstate commerce such that Congress may not confer such power on the States through legislation?
  2. In what ways may the states regulate interstate commerce notwithstanding Congress’ exclusive authority to regulate it under the Constitution?

Holding and Rule (Curtis)

  1. No. The Commerce Clause does not deprive the States of all power to regulate interstate commerce such that Congress may not confer such power on the States through legislation.
  2. States may regulate those aspects of interstate commerce that are so local in character as to require diverse treatment.

States may regulate matters which, because of their number and diversity, may never be adequately dealt with by Congress under the Commerce Clause. While the Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce including the regulation of pilots, it does not deprive the States of all power to regulate them. Congress has manifested legislative intent not to regulate in this area, and leaves such regulation to the States.

Disposition

Judgment for Board of Wardens affirmed.

Notes

This opinion presents an example of the “selective exclusiveness” test. The Supreme Court held that Congress does not have the exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce. While many aspects of interstate commerce require uniform rules that apply nationwide, other aspects are highly dependent on local factors and are regulated by the states under local rules.

Dormant Commerce Clause

The Supreme Court in this case took an intermediate approach between those who argued that the Commerce Clause precluded any state regulation of interstate commerce, and those who argued that the States could regulate without restraint in areas in which Congress had not acted.

See Lochner v. New York for a constitutional law case brief involving issues of states’ rights and freedom to contract.


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