Powers of Congress Supreme Court Cases

The longest article in the U.S. Constitution is Article I, which describes the structure and powers of Congress. Eighteen clauses in Section 8 of Article I list its enumerated powers, such as:

  • Taxing and spending for the general welfare
  • Borrowing and coining money
  • Regulating patents and copyrights
  • Establishing lower federal courts
  • Declaring war, raising and supporting an army, and maintaining a navy
  • Establishing rules for naturalization and bankruptcy
  • Making laws that are necessary and proper for carrying into execution the enumerated powers and other powers vested by the Constitution in the federal government

The clause in Section 8 most often interpreted by the Supreme Court is likely the Commerce Clause. This grants Congress the power "to regulate commerce with states, other nations, and Native American tribes." The Supreme Court has interpreted the commerce power broadly for much of its history, although some recent Commerce Clause cases have shown greater restraint. Inferred from the Commerce Clause, a doctrine known as the "dormant Commerce Clause" prevents states from discriminating against or excessively burdening interstate commerce.

The Supreme Court sometimes limits the powers of Congress in deference to federalism principles. For example, Congress cannot require states or their officials to adopt or enforce federal laws. Under the spending power, though, Congress may attach conditions to the receipt of federal funds, thus incentivizing states to act in certain ways.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving the powers of Congress, arranged from newest to oldest.

Haaland v. Brackeen (2023)

Author: Amy Coney Barrett

When Congress validly legislates pursuant to its Article I powers, the Supreme Court has not hesitated to find conflicting state family law preempted, notwithstanding the limited application of federal law in the field of domestic relations generally. Also, Congress may impose ancillary recordkeeping requirements related to state-court proceedings without violating the Tenth Amendment.

Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Ass'n v. Thomas (2019)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

A two-year durational residency requirement applicable to retail liquor store license applicants violated the Commerce Clause.

South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. (2018)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

State taxes will be sustained so long as they apply to an activity with a substantial nexus with the taxing state, are fairly apportioned, do not discriminate against interstate commerce, and are fairly related to the services that the state provides.

Murphy v. NCAA (2018)

Author: Stephen Breyer

Congress cannot issue direct orders to state legislatures, regardless of whether it is compelling a state to enact legislation or prohibiting a state from enacting new laws.

Comptroller of Treasury of Maryland v. Wynne (2015)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

A state income tax scheme violated the dormant Commerce Clause when it taxed income that residents earned inside and outside the state but did not provide residents with a full credit against income taxes paid to other states.

National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012)

Author: John Roberts

The individual health insurance mandate under the Affordable Care Act was a permissible use of Congress' taxing power, but the way in which the ACA conditioned all Medicaid funding on states' compliance with a significant expansion was not a valid use of Congress' spending power. Also, the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate commerce but not to compel it.

U.S. v. Comstock (2010)

Author: Stephen Breyer

In determining whether the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes a particular federal statute, there must be “means-ends rationality” between the enacted statute and the source of federal power.

Gonzales v. Raich (2005)

Author: John Paul Stevens

State laws permitting the medical use of marijuana do not prevent Congress from prohibiting its use for any purpose in those states under the Commerce Clause.

U.S. v. Morrison (2000)

Author: William Rehnquist

Congress may not regulate non-economic, violent criminal conduct based solely on its aggregate effect on interstate commerce. The Constitution requires a distinction between what is national and what is local.

Printz v. U.S. (1997)

Author: Antonin Scalia

Congressional action compelling state officers to execute federal laws is unconstitutional. The federal government's power would be augmented immeasurably and impermissibly if it were able to impress into its service, and at no cost to itself, the police officers of the 50 states.

U.S. Term Limits, Inc v. Thornton (1995)

Author: John Paul Stevens

Neither Congress nor the states may impose congressional qualifications additional to those specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

U.S. v. Lopez (1995)

Author: William Rehnquist

Congress may regulate the use of the channels of interstate commerce, regulate and protect the instrumentalities of interstate commerce (or persons or things in interstate commerce), and regulate activities that have a substantial relation to interstate commerce.

West Lynn Creamery, Inc. v. Healy (1994)

Author: John Paul Stevens

A state violated the dormant Commerce Clause when it imposed an assessment on all fluid milk (including milk produced out of state) sold by dealers to retailers in the state and distributed the entire assessment to in-state dairy farmers.

New York v. U.S. (1992)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

While Congress has substantial power under the Constitution to encourage the states to provide for the disposal of the radioactive waste generated within their borders, the Constitution does not confer upon Congress the ability simply to compel the states to do so. More generally, Congress may not commandeer the states' legislative processes by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program, but instead it must exercise legislative authority directly upon individuals.

South Dakota v. Dole (1987)

Author: William Rehnquist

The exercise of the spending power must be in pursuit of the general welfare. If Congress desires to condition the states' receipt of federal funds, it must do so unambiguously, enabling the states to exercise their choice knowingly, cognizant of the consequences of their participation. Conditions on federal grants must be related to a national concern.

Maine v. Taylor (1986)

Author: Harry Blackmun

If a state does not needlessly obstruct interstate trade or attempt to place itself in a position of economic isolation, it retains broad regulatory authority to protect the health and safety of its citizens and the integrity of its natural resources.

Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985)

Author: Harry Blackmun

The states' continued role in the federal system is primarily guaranteed not by any externally imposed limits on the commerce power, but by the structure of the federal government itself.

Bacchus Imports, Ltd. v. Dias (1984)

Author: Byron White

In the process of competition, no state may discriminatorily tax products manufactured in any other state, even if the burden of the tax is borne by in-state consumers.

South-Central Timber Development, Inc. v. Wunnicke (1984)

Author: Byron White

For a state regulation to be removed from the reach of the dormant Commerce Clause as being authorized by Congress, congressional intent must be unmistakably clear.

Reeves, Inc. v. Stake (1980)

Author: Harry Blackmun

Nothing in the purposes animating the Commerce Clause prohibits a state, in the absence of congressional action, from participating in the market and exercising the right to favor its own citizens over others.

Hughes v. Oklahoma (1979)

Author: William Brennan

In a dormant Commerce Clause analysis, a court must inquire whether a challenged statute regulates evenhandedly with only incidental effects on interstate commerce, or discriminates against interstate commerce either on its face or in practical effect; whether the statute serves a legitimate local purpose; and, if so, whether alternative means could promote this local purpose as well without discriminating against interstate commerce.

City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey (1978)

Author: Potter Stewart

Regardless of its purpose, a state cannot discriminate against articles of commerce coming from outside the state unless there is some reason, apart from their origin, to treat them differently.

Exxon Corp. v. Governor of Maryland (1978)

Author: John Paul Stevens

Interstate commerce is not subjected to an impermissible burden simply because an otherwise valid regulation causes some business to shift from one interstate supplier to another.

Katzenbach v. McClung (1964)

Author: Tom C. Clark

The power of Congress in the field of interstate commerce is broad and sweeping. When it keeps within its sphere and violates no express constitutional limitation, it has been the rule of the Supreme Court not to interfere.

Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. U.S. (1964)

Author: Tom C. Clark

Prohibiting racial discrimination in places of public accommodation affecting commerce is a valid exercise of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause as applied to a place of public accommodation serving interstate travelers.

Wickard v. Filburn (1942)

Author: Robert H. Jackson

The fact that a certain party's contribution to the demand for a commodity may be trivial by itself is not enough to remove them from the scope of federal regulation when their contribution, taken together with that of many others similarly situated, is far from trivial.

U.S. v. Darby (1941)

Author: Harlan Fiske Stone

While manufacture is not interstate commerce, the shipment of manufactured goods interstate is interstate commerce, and the prohibition of such shipment by Congress is a regulation of interstate commerce.

Steward Machine Co. v. Davis (1937)

Author: Benjamin Nathan Cardozo

If a power akin to undue influence may be exerted by the national government on the states, the location of the point at which pressure turns into compulsion and ceases to be inducement would be a question of degree.

NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Although activities may be intrastate in character when separately considered, if they have such a close and substantial relation to interstate commerce that their control is essential or appropriate to protect that commerce from burdens and obstructions, Congress has the power to exercise that control.

U.S. v. Butler (1936)

Author: Owen Josephus Roberts

The power to tax and spend is a separate and distinct power. Its exercise is not confined to the fields committed to Congress by the other enumerated grants of power, but it is limited by the requirement that it shall be exercised to provide for the general welfare of the United States.

Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922)

Author: William Howard Taft

An act of Congress that is clearly designed to penalize (and thereby discourage or suppress) conduct that is reserved by the Constitution to be exclusively regulated by the states cannot be sustained under the federal taxing power by calling the penalty a tax.

Missouri v. Holland (1920)

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Treaties made under the authority of the United States, along with the Constitution and laws of the United States made in pursuance thereof, are the supreme law of the land.

Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)

Author: William Rufus Day

The manufacture of goods is not commerce, nor do the facts that they are intended for interstate commerce and are shipped in interstate commerce make their production a part of that commerce subject to the control of Congress.

Selective Draft Law Cases (1918)

Author: Edward Douglass White

The grant to Congress of the power to raise and support armies includes the power to compel military service.

Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad Co. (1916)

Author: Edward Douglass White

The Fifth Amendment is not a limitation on the taxing power conferred on Congress by the Constitution.

Houston East and West Texas Railway Co. v. U.S. (1914)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

In taking measures necessary to foster and protect interstate commerce, it may be necessary for Congress to control the intrastate transactions of interstate carriers.

Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903)

Author: Edward Douglass White

Plenary authority over the tribal relations of the Indians has been exercised by Congress from the beginning, and the power has always been deemed a political one, not subject to be controlled by the judicial department of the government.

Veazie Bank v. Fenno (1869)

Author: Salmon Portland Chase

Since Congress has undertaken in the exercise of undisputed constitutional power to provide a currency for the whole country, it may constitutionally secure the benefit of it to the people by appropriate legislation. To that end, Congress may restrain by suitable enactments the circulation of any notes not issued under its own authority.

Cooley v. Board of Wardens (1852)

Author: Benjamin Curtis

The mere grant of the commercial power to Congress does not forbid the states from passing laws to regulate pilotage. The power to regulate commerce includes various subjects, 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 the latter class.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842)

Author: Joseph Story

If Congress has a constitutional power to regulate a particular subject and does actually regulate it in a given manner and a certain form, it cannot be that the state legislatures have a right to interfere. In other words, when Congress has exclusive power over a subject, it is not competent for state legislation to add to the provisions of Congress on that subject.

New York v. Miln (1837)

Author: Philip Barbour

While a state is acting within the scope of its legitimate power as to the end to be attained, it may use whatever means, being appropriate to the end, that it may think fit, although they may be the same or nearly the same as scarcely to be distinguished from those adopted by Congress acting under a different power. This is subject only to the limitation that the law of the state must yield to the law of Congress if they collide.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

Author: John Marshall

The power to regulate commerce does not stop at the external boundary of a state, although it does not extend to commerce that is completely internal.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

Author: John Marshall

Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means that are appropriate, that are plainly adapted to that end, that are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.

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