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Leisy v. Hardin


The ruling made clear that commerce between the states was within the domain of Congress, and that no state could confiscate property that Congress recognized as legally imported. The Court's decision reinforced Congress's control over interstate trade, and paved the way for legislation which surrendered that right under certain conditions.

During the mid- and late-1800s, the United States witnessed an increase in temperance groups, who called for the prohibition of alcohol. Their perception of drinking liquor as a detriment to society was also held by Supreme Court justices. In Mugler v. Kansas (1887), for example, the Court said, "statistics accessible to every one [show] that the idleness, disorder, pauperism, and crime existing in the country are, in some degree at least, traceable to this evil." In response to the grass-roots temperance movements, many states began passing legislation limiting the sale of liquor, while making exceptions for its production and sale for medicinal, mechanical, and religious purposes. Because of this nationwide trend, several cases concerning the prohibition of alcohol, and the confiscations relating to that prohibition, came before the Court.

In this particular case, the question centered around whether an individual state could control imports from other states. Gus Leisy & Co., made up of Christiana, Edward, Lena, and Albert Leisy, was a brewing company based in Peoria, Illinois. This brewing company brought into Keokuk, Iowa, barrels and cases of beer, all of which were sealed with metallic IRS seals. They were stilled sealed in this way on 30 June 1888, when they were confiscated by authority of a search warrant by A.J. Hardin, the marshal for the city of Keokuk. The state of Iowa had outlawed the production and sale of "intoxicating liquors," except "for pharmaceutical and medicinal purposes, and alcohol for specified chemical purposes, and wine for sacramental purposes," for which permits had to be secured. Because the Leisy beer was to be sold without such a permit indicating it was for one of these exempted purposes, the actions of Gus Leisy & Co. were seen as illegal, and the beer was confiscated. Gus Leisy & Co. then brought suit against Hardin to recover the confiscated property. The state court ruled that the laws under which the property were confiscated were unconstitutional, and therefore void; the ruling was for the company, calling for the return of the property. The state supreme court reversed this ruling, and the case was then heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in this and other cases the rights of states to pass legislation which would protect its citizens (including the right to restrict access to alcohol, considering its negative effects), the question specifically to be answered was whether states could usurp powers normally reserved for Congress. In Brown v. Maryland (1827), for example, consideration was given to states' powers to tax imports, and to restrictions requiring imports to be sold in their original packaging. In that case, the Court ruled that "the right to sell any article imported was an inseparable incident to the right to import it;" i.e., if states allow the importation of an article, they cannot make the sale of that article illegal. In Bowman v. Railway Co. (1888), the Court also considered the ability of states to restrict interstate trade, and rejected any authority except that of Congress: a certificate Iowa required for interstate transport "was declared invalid, because essentially a regulation of commerce among the states, and not sanctioned by the authority, express or implied, of Congress." In view of these precedents, then, and the constitutional designation of power over interstate trade to Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court, and ruled for Gus Leisy & Co. As the opinion of the Court stated, " . . . in the absence of congressional permission to do so , the State had no power to interfere by seizure, or any other action, in prohibition of importation . . . we cannot hold that any articles which Congress recognizes as subjects of interstate commerce are not such."

But this decision did not affect the possibility of Congress passing legislation which would specifically allow states to control the importation of liquor. In fact, the Court made it clear that Congress retained control over interstate trade only until it gave up that control by enacting legislation. This did eventually occur, with Congress passing laws allowing states to ban all sales and importation of liquor, such as the Wilson Act, and later, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution which brought in the era of Prohibition.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Leisy v. Hardin - Significance