Congressional Regulation of Commerce as Traffic

Congressional Regulation of Commerce as Traffic

The Sherman Act: Sugar Trust Case.—Congress’ chief effort to regulate commerce in the primary sense of “traffic” is embodied in the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the opening section of which declares “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise,” or “conspiracy in restraint of trade and commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations” to be “illegal,” while the second section makes it a misdemeanor for anybody to “monopolize or attempt to monopolize any part of such commerce.”748 The act was passed to curb the growing tendency to form industrial combinations, and the first case to reach the Court under it was the famous Sugar Trust Case, United States v. E. C. Knight Co.749 Here the Government asked for the cancellation of certain agreements, whereby the American Sugar Refining Company, had “acquired,” it was conceded, “nearly complete control of the manufacture of refined sugar in the United States.”

The question of the validity of the Act was not expressly discussed by the Court but was subordinated to that of its proper construction. The Court, in pursuance of doctrines of constitutional law then dominant with it, turned the Act from its intended purpose and destroyed its effectiveness for several years, as that of the Interstate Commerce Act was being contemporaneously impaired. The following passage early in Chief Justice Fuller’s opinion for the Court sets forth the conception of the federal system that controlled the decision: “It is vital that the independence of the commercial power and of the police power, and the delimination between them, however sometimes perplexing, should always be recognized and observed, for while the one furnishes the strongest bond of union, the other is essential to the preservation of the autonomy of the States as required by our dual form of government; and acknowledged evils, however grave and urgent they may appear to be, had better be borne, than the risk be run, in the effort to suppress them, of more serious consequences by resort to expedients of even doubtful constitutionality.”750

In short, what was needed, the Court felt, was a hard and fast line between the two spheres of power, and in a series of propositions it endeavored to lay down such a line: (1) production is always local, and under the exclusive domain of the States; (2) commerce among the States does not begin until goods “commence their final movement from their State of origin to that of their destination;” (3) the sale of a product is merely an incident of its production and, while capable of “bringing the operation of commerce into play,” affects it only incidentally; (4) such restraint as would reach commerce, as above defined, in consequence of combinations to control production “in all its forms,” would be “indirect, however inevitable and whatever its extent,” and as such beyond the purview of the Act.751 Applying the above reasoning to the case before it, the Court proceeded: “The object [of the combination] was manifestly private gain in the manufacture of the commodity, but not through the control of interstate or foreign commerce. It is true that the bill alleged that the products of these refineries were sold and distributed among the several States, and that all the companies were engaged in trade or commerce with the several States and with foreign nations; but this was no more than to say that trade and commerce served manufacture to fulfill its function.”

748 26 Stat. 209 (1890); 15 U.S.C. §§ 1–7.

749 156 U.S. 1 (1895).

750 156 U.S. at 13.

“Sugar was refined for sale, and sales were probably made at Philadelphia for consumption, and undoubtedly for resale by the first purchasers throughout Pennsylvania and other States, and refined sugar was also forwarded by the companies to other States for sale. Nevertheless it does not follow that an attempt to monopolize, or the actual monopoly of, the manufacture was an attempt, whether executory or consummated, to monopolize commerce, even though, in order to dispose of the product, the instrumentality of commerce was necessarily invoked. There was nothing in the proofs to indicate any intention to put a restraint upon trade or commerce, and the fact, as we have seen that trade or commerce might be indirectly affected was not enough to entitle complainants to a decree.”752

Sherman Act Revived.—Four years later came the case of Addyston Pipe and Steel Co. v. United States,753 in which the Antitrust Act was successfully applied as against an industrial combination for the first time. The agreements in the case, the parties to which were manufacturing concerns, effected a division of territory among them, and so involved, it was held, a “direct” restraint on the distribution and hence of the transportation of the products of the contracting firms. The holding, however, did not question the doctrine of the earlier case, which in fact continued substantially undisturbed until 1905, when Swift & Co. v. United States,754 was decided.

751 156 U.S. at 13–16.

752 156 U.S. at 17. The doctrine of the case boiled down to the proposition that commerce was transportation only, a doctrine Justice Harlan undertook to refute in his notable dissenting opinion. “Interstate commerce does not, therefore, consist in transportation simply. It includes the purchase and sale of articles that are intended to be transported from one State to another—every species of commercial intercourse among the States and with foreign nations” Id. at 22. “Any combination, therefore, that disturbs or unreasonably obstructs freedom in buying and selling articles manufactured to be sold to persons in other States or to be carried to other States—a freedom that cannot exist if the right to buy and sell is fettered by unlawful restraints that crush out competition—affects, not incidentally, but directly, the people of all the States; and the remedy for such an evil is found only in the exercise of powers confided to a government which, this court has said, was the government of all, exercising powers delegated by all, representing all, acting for all. McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 405,” Id. at 33.

753 175 U.S. 211 (1899).

754 196 U.S. 375 (1905). The Sherman Act was applied to break up combinations of interstate carriers in United States v. Trans-Missouri Freight Ass’n, 166 U.S. 290 (1897); United States v. Joint-Traffic Ass’n, 171 U.S. 505 (1898); and Northern Securities Co. v. United States, 193 U.S. 197 (1904).

In Mandeville Island Farms v. American Crystal Sugar Co., 334 U.S. 219, 229– 239 (1948), Justice Rutledge, for the Court, critically reviewed the jurisprudence of the limitations on the Act and and the deconstruction of the judicial constraints. In recent years, the Court’s decisions have permitted the reach of the Sherman Act to expand along with the expanding notions of congressional power. Gulf Oil Corp. v. Copp Paving Co., 419 U.S. 186 (1974); Hospital Building Co. v. Rex Hospital Trustees, 425 U.S. 738 (1976); McLain v. Real Estate Bd. of New Orleans, 444 U.S. 232 (1980); Summit Health, Ltd. v. Pinhas, 500 U.S. 322 (1991). The Court, however, does insist that plaintiffs alleging that an intrastate activity violates the Act prove the relationship to interstate commerce set forth in the Act. Gulf Oil Corp, 419 U.S. at 194–199.

The “Current of Commerce” Concept: The Swift Case.— Defendants in Swift were some thirty firms engaged in Chicago and other cities in the business of buying livestock in their stock-yards, in converting it at their packing houses into fresh meat, and in the sale and shipment of such fresh meat to purchasers in other States. The charge against them was that they had entered into a combination to refrain from bidding against each other in the local markets, to fix the prices at which they would sell, to restrict shipments of meat, and to do other forbidden acts. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court on defendants’ contention that certain of the acts complained of were not acts of interstate commerce and so did not fall within a valid reading of the Sherman Act. The Court, however, sustained the Government on the ground that the “scheme as a whole” came within the act, and that the local activities alleged were simply part and parcel of this general scheme.755

Referring to the purchase of livestock at the stockyards, the Court, speaking by Justice Holmes, said: “Commerce among the States is not a technical legal conception, but a practical one, drawn from the course of business. When cattle are sent for sale from a place in one State, with the expectation that they will end their transit, after purchase, in another, and when in effect they do so, with only the interruption necessary to find a purchaser at the stockyards, and when this is a typical, constantly recurring course, the current thus existing is a current of commerce among the States, and the purchase of the cattle is a part and incident of such commerce.”756 Likewise the sales alleged of fresh meat at the slaughtering places fell within the general design. Even if they imported a technical passing of title at the slaughtering places, they also imported that the sales were to persons in other States, and that shipments to such States were part of the transaction.757 Thus, sales of the type that in the Sugar Trust case were thrust to one side as immaterial from the point of view of the law, because they enabled the manufacturer “to fulfill its function,” were here treated as merged in an interstate commerce stream.

755 Swift & Co. v. United States, 196 U.S. 375, 396 (1905).

756 196 U.S. at 398–99.

757 196 U.S. at 399–401.

Thus, the concept of commerce as trade, that is, as traffic, again entered the constitutional law picture, with the result that conditions directly affecting interstate trade could not be dismissed on the ground that they affected interstate commerce, in the sense of interstate transportation, only “indirectly.” Lastly, the Court added these significant words: “But we do not mean to imply that the rule which marks the point at which State taxation or regulation becomes permissible necessarily is beyond the scope of interference by Congress in cases where such interference is deemed necessary for the protection of commerce among the States.”758 That is to say, the line that confines state power from one side does not always confine national power from the other. Even though the line accurately divides the subject matter of the complementary spheres, national power is always entitled to take on the additional extension that is requisite to guarantee its effective exercise and is furthermore supreme.

The Danbury Hatters Case.—In this respect, the Swift case only states what the Shreveport case was later to declare more explicitly, and the same may be said of an ensuing series of cases in which combinations of employees engaged in such intrastate activities as manufacturing, mining, building, construction, and the distribution of poultry were subjected to the penalties of the Sherman Act because of the effect or intended effect of their activities on interstate commerce.759

758 196 U.S. at 400.

759 Loewe v. Lawlor (The Danbury Hatters Case), 208 U.S. 274 (1908); Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering, 254 U.S. 443 (1921); Coronado Co. v. United Mine Workers, 268 U.S. 295 (1925); United States v. Bruins, 272 U.S. 549 (1926); Bedford Co. v. Stone Cutters Ass’n, 274 U.S. 37 (1927); Local 167 v. United States, 291 U.S. 293 (1934); Allen Bradley Co. v. Union, 325 U.S. 797 (1945); United States v. Employing Plasterers Ass’n, 347 U.S. 186 (1954); United States v. Green, 350 U.S. 415 (1956); Callanan v. United States, 364 U.S. 587 (1961).

Stockyards and Grain Futures Acts.—In 1921 Congress passed the Packers and Stockyards Act760 whereby the business of commission men and livestock dealers in the chief stockyards of the country was brought under national supervision, and in the year following it passed the Grain Futures Act761 whereby exchanges dealing in grain futures were subjected to control. The decisions of the Court sustaining these measures both built directly upon the Swift case.

In Stafford v. Wallace,762 which involved the former act, Chief Justice Taft, speaking for the Court, said: “The object to be secured by the act is the free and unburdened flow of livestock from the ranges and farms of the West and Southwest through the great stockyards and slaughtering centers on the borders of that region, and thence in the form of meat products to the consuming cities of the country in the Middle West and East, or, still as livestock, to the feeding places and fattening farms in the Middle West or East for further preparation for the market.”763 The stockyards, therefore, were “not a place of rest or final destination.” They were “but a throat through which the current flows,” and the sales there were not merely local transactions. “They do not stop the flow;—but, on the contrary” are “indispensable to its continuity.”764

In Chicago Board of Trade v. Olsen,765 involving the Grain Futures Act, the same course of reasoning was repeated. Speaking of the Swift case, Chief Justice Taft remarked: “That case was a milestone in the interpretation of the commerce clause of the Constitution. It recognized the great changes and development in the business of this vast country and drew again the dividing line between interstate and intrastate commerce where the Constitution intended it to be. It refused to permit local incidents of a great interstate movement, which taken alone are intrastate, to characterize the movement as such.”766

Of special significance, however, is the part of the opinion devoted to showing the relation between future sales and cash sales, and hence the effect of the former upon the interstate grain trade. The test, said the Chief Justice, was furnished by the question of price. “The question of price dominates trade between the States. Sales of an article which affect the country-wide price of the article directly affect the country-wide commerce in it.”767 Thus a practice which demonstrably affects prices would also affect interstate trade “directly,” and so, even though local in itself, would fall within the regulatory power of Congress. In the following passage, indeed, Chief Justice Taft whittled down, in both cases, the “direct-indirect” formula to the vanishing point: “Whatever amounts to more or less constant practice, and threatens to obstruct or unduly to burden the freedom of interstate commerce is within the regulatory power of Congress under the commerce clause, and it is primarily for Congress to consider and decide the fact of the danger to meet it. This court will certainly not substitute its judgment for that of Congress in such a matter unless the relation of the subject to interstate commerce and its effect upon it are clearly nonexistent.”768

760 42 Stat. 159, 7 U.S.C. §§ 171–183, 191–195, 201–203.

761 42 Stat. 998 (1922), 7 U.S.C. §§ 1–9, 10a–17.

762 258 U.S. 495 (1922).

763 258 U.S. at 514.

764 258 U.S. at 515–16. See also Lemke v. Farmers Grain Co., 258 U.S. 50 (1922); Minnesota v. Blasius, 290 U.S. 1 (1933).

765 262 U.S. 1 (1923).

766 262 U.S. at 35.

767 262 U.S. at 40.

768 262 U.S. at 37, quoting Stafford v. Wallace, 258 U.S. 495, 521 (1922).

It was in reliance on the doctrine of these cases that Congress first set to work to combat the Depression in 1933 and the years immediately following. But in fact, much of its legislation at this time marked a wide advance upon the measures just passed in review. They did not stop with regulating traffic among the States and the instrumentalities thereof; they also essayed to govern production and industrial relations in the field of production. Confronted with this expansive exercise of Congress’ power, the Court again deemed itself called upon to define a limit to the commerce power that would save to the States their historical sphere, and especially their customary monopoly of legislative power in relation to industry and labor management.

Securities and Exchange Commission.—Not all antidepression legislation, however, was of this new approach. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934769 and the Public Utility Company Act (“Wheeler-Rayburn Act”) of 1935770 were not. The former created the Securities and Exchange Commission and authorized it to lay down regulations designed to keep dealing in securities honest and aboveboard and closed the channels of interstate commerce and the mails to dealers refusing to register under the act. The latter required the companies governed by it to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission and to inform it concerning their business, organization and financial structure, all on pain of being prohibited use of the facilities of interstate commerce and the mails; while by § 11, the so-called “death sentence” clause, the same act closed after a certain date the channels of interstate communication to certain types of public utility companies whose operations, Congress found, were calculated chiefly to exploit the investing and consuming public. All these provisions have been sustained,771 Gibbons v. Ogden furnishing the Court its principle reliance.

769 48 Stat. 881, 15 U.S.C. § 77b et seq.

770 49 Stat. 803, 15 U.S.C. §§ 79–79z–6.

771 Electric Bond Co. v. SEC, 303 U.S. 419 (1938); North American Co. v. SEC, 327 U.S. 686 (1946); American Power & Light Co. v. SEC, 329 U.S. 90 (1946).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014