Commerce Clause

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What questions left unsolved by Gibbons v. Ogden did Cooley v. Board of Wardens attempt to resolve?  

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Both of these U.S. Supreme Court cases concerned regulation of interstate commerce on waterways.

The Gibbons v. Ogden case of 1824 had established a principle about states not interfering with Congressional power. A state could not enact any legislation that would run counter to the power of Congress in the...

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Both of these U.S. Supreme Court cases concerned regulation of interstate commerce on waterways.

The Gibbons v. Ogden case of 1824 had established a principle about states not interfering with Congressional power. A state could not enact any legislation that would run counter to the power of Congress in the area of regulating interstate commerce. Aaron Ogden was operating steamboats in New York and New Jersey; he had purchased the sole rights from Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, who had been granted the monopoly in 1798. Thomas Gibbons was also operating steamboats in those waters, so Ogden sued him in 1819. Gibbons won the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case argued by Daniel Webster, because a state could not grant a monopoly on waters outside its jurisdiction; that must be a federal matter.

The Cooley v. Board of Wardens case, decided in 1851, was concerned with states’ rights to regulate its waterways, including ports, when a federal law does not exist. The Supreme Court agreed with the State of Pennsylvania that it did have that right regarding the port of Philadelphia. It based the ruling on a 1789 act of Congress. Interstate commerce, therefore, is not de facto regulated at the federal level. Rather, where there is no active federal ruling regarding such commerce, including piloting, the states have those rights.

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In these cases, the Supreme Court was ruling on the Commerce Clause and its meaning.  It was ruling on the degree to which the states could make regulations that would have an impact on interstate commerce, which is the federal government’s to regulate under the Commerce Clause.

In Gibbons, the Court ruled that the state of New York’s grant of monopoly steamboat privileges on their waters went directly against the commerce clause.  It prevented other steamship companies from carrying between New York and other states.  What the Court did not decide was how much regulation the states could impose before running afoul of the Commerce Clause.  To put it in modern terms, we can imagine that speed limits in different states affect interstate commerce.  When driving from one state to another on the freeway, you may have to slow down.  Is that a violation of the Commerce Clause?

The Court needed to address this.  It did so in part in Cooley.  In that case, it ruled that a requirement that ships hire local pilots to guide them into Philadelphia harbor did not violate the Commerce Clause.  It ruled that some aspects of commerce fundamentally had to be uniform across the country while some aspects (such as piloting or speed limits) could easily be left to the states without harming commerce.

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