Wickard v. Filburn (Great American Court Cases)
Legal Citation: 317 U.S. 111 (1942)
Claude R. Wickard, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
Roscoe C. Filburn
That the practice of producing surplus wheat and keeping it on a farm should be fined by the federal government.
Chief Lawyers for Appellant
Francis Biddle, U.S Attorney General; Charles Fahy, U.S. Solicitor General
Chief Lawyer for Appellee
Webb R. Clark
Justices for the Court
Hugo Lafayette Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson (writing for the Court), Frank Murphy, Stanley Forman Reed, Owen Josephus Roberts, Harlan Fiske Stone
None (James Francis Byrnes did not participate)
Date of Decision
9 November 1942
The Supreme Court upheld the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the fine imposed under it on Filburn.
Wickard was the highwater mark of the Court's extension of federal regulatory power under the Commerce Clause.
(The entire section is 947 words.)
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Wickard v. Filburn (Supreme Court Drama)
Appellant: Claude R. Wickard, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
Appellee: Rosco C. Filburn
Appellant's Claim: That the federal government has constitutional authority provided in the Commerce Clause to regulate wheat production, regardless if the particular crops were intended for sale in the market.
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Francis Biddle, U.S. Attorney General, and Charles Fahy, U.S. Solicitor General
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Webb R. Clark
Justices for the Court: Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, Frank Murphy, Stanley F. Reed, Owen J. Roberts, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone
Justices Dissenting: None (James Francis Byrnes did not participate)
Date of Decision: November 9, 1942
Decision: Ruled in favor of Wickard in that the federal government has broad powers under the Commerce Clause to regulate all activities that remotely may affect interstate commerce.
Significance: The ruling established an exceptionally broad interpretation of the federal government's powers under the Commerce Clause. Congress could regulate agricultural production that might affect interstate commerce, even if it is not for sale. Federal and state regulation affecting nearly all forms of agricultural production and trade in the United States grew through the next several decades.
Agricultural production in the United States, largely involving small family-owned farms, enjoyed good economic times following the American Civil War (1861865) through World War I (1914918). The 1920s saw the rise of mass productivity inspired by the industrial revolution leading to increased production. With the greater supply of farm produce, prices began to substantially decline by the end of the decade. Many family farms folded due to inadequate profits. With the stock market crash of October of 1929 and the following Great Depression through the 1930s, economic hardships for farmers further increased. Much of the public was no longer able to afford farm produce and prices fell dramatically. Without sufficient profits, foreclosures (ending a property right to pay a debt) on farms whose owners could no longer to pay their mortgages increased sharply.
In reaction to the desperate trends, farmers began organizing to save their livelihoods. Some withheld food from markets to force prices back up. Violence erupted as efforts were made to keep some farmers from delivering their produce to market. Agitation against the government for lack of support increased. Some states began passing laws making it more difficult for banks for foreclose on farms. With a national farmer strike planned for May 13, 1933, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933945) signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act on May 12 to head off the protests. The act provided payments to farmers who voluntarily reduced their production. The act was part of Roosevelt's New Deal program to bring social and economic change to a struggling country.
However, like many laws passed by Congress at that time to spur economic recovery from the depression, the very conservative Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional in 1936. The Court held the federal government had no authority to become involved in what they considered local matters to be resolved by the states. In fact, the Court viewed agriculture as largely out of the realm of federal business regulation.
Beginning in 1935, Roosevelt renewed his efforts at social and economic reform with a second New Deal program. By this time, the makeup of the Supreme Court began to change. Some justices retired under political pressure from Roosevelt who sought to have a Court that would support his programs. Included in the renewed effort was the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. The act provided for increased federal control of farm production, loans to farms, farm insurance, and soil conservation to maintain farm productivity. Unlike the earlier act which paid farmers to produce less of certain crops, the second act established market quotas (limits set on something) for various farm products. Those farmers exceeding the amounts set for them by the government could be fined.
The act was immediately the subject of a Supreme Court challenge in Mulford v. Smith (1938). The revamped Court supported it by ruling in favor of tobacco-growing quotas.
Roscoe C. Filburn was a small-time Ohio farmer raising poultry and producing dairy products. He also grew a small crop of winter wheat. Under the act, the Department of Agriculture had designated eleven acres of Filburn's land for growing wheat. A particular yield for that acreage was also set. In defiance of the set levels, in 1941 Filburn planted wheat on twelve additional acres and exceeded his yield limits. The extra planting produced 249 bushels of wheat. The department fined Filburn $117. He refused to pay and the department put a lien (the property is subject to sale to pay debts) on his wheat.
In reaction, Filburn filed a lawsuit in federal district court against U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard. Filburn sought to overturn his wheat production restrictions. He claimed that limitations on crop production was outside the federal government's power to restrict agriculture. In his defense, Filburn also claimed his excess wheat was only for use on the farm to feed animals and would not be sold at the market. The district court decided in favor of Filburn by ruling that the federal government did not have authority to fine him. Wickard appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
A Stronger Commerce Clause
By the time the case came before the Court for arguments on May 4, 1942, only one justice, Owen Roberts, remained from the earlier group which had staunchly opposed increased federal regulation proposed by Roosevelt and Congress in the New Deal programs. The Court ruled unanimously in favor of Wickard, overturning the lower court's ruling. Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Court, wrote that even excess agricultural produce not intended to be sold at commercial markets could still affected interstate commerce. Jackson wrote that even though the amount of Filburn's excess wheat was itself small, taken in combination with other wheat farmers there could be a significant impact on interstate commerce. If Filburn grew his own wheat, then he would not need wheat from the open market. This would hurt other farmers by causing the demand and prices for wheat to go down. Jackson wrote,
The maintenance by government regulation of a price for wheat undoubtedly can be accomplished as effectively by sustaining or increasing the demand as by limiting the supply . . . That [Filburn's] own contribution to the demand for wheat may be trivial [very small] by itself is not enough to remove him from the scope of federal regulation where, as here, taken together with that of many others similarly situated, is far from trivial . . . Home-grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce . . . Congress may properly have considered that wheat consumed on the farm where grown if wholly outside the scheme of regulation would have a substantial effect in defeating and obstructing [the act's] purpose to stimulate trade . . . at increased prices.
The Commerce Clause in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress may "regulate Commerce . . . among the several States." The Court had long debated whether federal commerce power authorized the federal government to only be able to control actual goods and produce being shipped between states, or if it applied to the actual production and how the kind and level of production could influence commerce. Jackson decided the difference between production and sales did not really matter,
Whether the subject of the regulation in question was 'production,' 'consumption,' or 'marketing' is . . . not material for purposes of deciding the question of federal power . . . But even if [Filburn's] activity be local and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce.
The use of wheat quotas, even on crops not to be sold at market, was upheld by the Court.
Growth of Agricultural Law
The decision in Wickard represented the greatest expansion of federal regulatory power through the Commerce Clause by the courts. Any effect on interstate commerce, even activity seemingly distant from actual commerce, fell within the scope of federal control. The important use of the Commerce Clause later involved race discrimination cases. In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) the Court affirmed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and access by people of all races to commercial places used by interstate travelers.
Within this broad scope of authority, the field of agricultural law developed by the late twentieth century to stabilize and promote production of the national food supply and other farm products. Federal regulation, addressing cultivation of various crops and raising of livestock, continued under the oversight of the Secretary of Agriculture.
Suggestions for further reading
Albertson, Dean. Roosevelt's Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.
Hamilton, David E. From New Day to New Deal: American Farm Policy from Hoover to Roosevelt, 1928-1933. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Romasco, Albert U. The Politics of Recovery: Roosevelt's New Deal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.