Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)

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During the early years of the 1900's, the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned a kind of federal police power by upholding federal laws that banned the shipment of certain noxious goods in interstate commerce, thereby effectively halting their manufacture and distribution. The leading decision in this area is Champion v. Ames (1903) in which the Court upheld a federal ban on the shipment of lottery tickets in interstate commerce. Similar federal laws were upheld that addressed the problems of prostitution, impure drugs, and adulterated foods. In Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), however, the Court brought this line of decisions to an abrupt end.

Hammer v. Dagenhart involved a challenge to the federal Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, which banned goods made by child labor from shipment in interstate commerce. In distinguishing its earlier decisions upholding federal bans on the shipment of specified goods in interstate commerce from the child labor situation, the Court held that in the former cases, the evil involved (lotteries, prostitution, unhealthy food, and so on) followed the shipment of the good in interstate commerce, while in the present case, the evil (child labor) preceded shipment of the goods. Therefore, according to the Court, the federal ban was really aimed at controlling manufacturing, which was beyond the scope of Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause. “If it were otherwise,” the Court said, “all manufacture intended for interstate shipment would be brought under federal control to the practical exclusion of the authority of the States, a result . . . not contemplated by the . . . Constitution.” The Court concluded that to hold otherwise would “eliminate state control over local matters, and thereby destroy the federal system.”

Ellis Katz

Last updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company; Champion v. Ames; Commerce among the States; Hipolite Egg Company v. United States; Tenth Amendment