Cooley v Board of Wardens: States Not excluded from Regulating Interstate CommerceHistorical
In Cooley v Board of Wardens, 53 U.S. 299 (1852), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the state may regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, provided that the subject of the regulation is local in nature.
The Facts of Cooley v Board of Wardens
In 1803, Pennsylvania enacted a law mandating that all ships entering and leaving the Port of Philadelphia hire a local pilot. Those that failed to do so were required to pay a fine of one-half the pilotage fee to the Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia. Aaron Cooley’s ship entered the Port of Philadelphia without hiring a local pilot. Cooley failed to pay the fines, and the Board of Wardens filed suit to collect the debt.
In defense of the suit, Cooley argued that the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional because it impermissibly regulated interstate commerce, a power he maintained was exclusively given to Congress. The state court sided with the Board of Wardens, and Cooley appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court’s Decision in Cooley v Board of Wardens
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision, holding that the Pennsylvania law was constitutional under the Commerce Clause. Justice Benjamin Curtis wrote the majority opinion.
“It is the opinion of a majority of the court that the mere grant to Congress of the power to regulate commerce, did not deprive the States of power to regulate pilots, and that although Congress had legislated on this subject, its legislation manifests an intention, with a single exception, not to regulate this subject, but to leave its regulation to the several states,” Justice Curtis wrote.
In reaching its decision, the Court acknowledged that the Pennsylvania law regulated interstate commerce, namely commercial shipping between states. However, it held that the authority to regulate “commerce between the several states” was not exclusive to Congress.
“It is true that the power to regulate commerce includes the regulation of navigation, and that pilot laws are regulations of navigation, and, therefore, of commerce, within the grant to Congress of the commercial power,” Justice Curtis wrote. “But the mere grant of the commercial power to Congress does not forbid the States from passing laws to regulate pilotage.”
According to the Court, the federal government had sole authority over issues of national importance, even if it failed to pass laws on the subject. Meanwhile, when Congress failed to enact regulations regarding local subjects, the states were free to act. As Justice Curtis explained, “The power to regulate commerce includes various subject, upon some of which there should be a uniform rule and upon others different rules in different localities. The power is exclusive in Congress in the former, but not so in the latter class.”
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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