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United States v. Carolene Products Company

High Court Rules

On 25 April 1938, the Supreme Court issued its decision. By a vote of 6-1, with two justices not participating, the Court overturned the lower court decision and ruled in favor of the United States. Justice Stone delivered the opinion of the majority, with Justice James McReynolds the lone dissenter.

In presenting his argument, Justice Stone first outlined the parameters of Congress' ability to regulate interstate commerce. Quoting an earlier case, Stone determined that that power is "complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the Constitution." With regard to the specifics of the case at hand, he concluded: "The prohibition of the shipment of filled milk in interstate commerce is a permissible regulation of commerce"--provided, in his view, that Fifth Amendment due process protections were observed.

Stone and his fellow justices found no violations of due process in the Congress' actions. In fact, Stone concluded, the prerogatives of due process had been scrupulously followed:

The Filled Milk Act was adopted by Congress after committee hearings, in the course of which eminent scientists and health experts testified. An extensive investigation was made of the commerce in milk compounds in which vegetable oils have been substituted for natural milk fat, and of the effect upon the public health of the use of such compounds as a food substitute for milk.

Stone then turned his attention to a consideration of when and how the Court ought to review congressional laws like the one it had been asked to rule on here. In doing so, he acknowledged Congress' attempt to "red flag" the issue of filled milk by defining it in the statute as a threat to public health. But he declared that the Court would have been inclined to find in its favor "even in the absence of such aids" because

the existence of facts supporting the legislative judgment is to be presumed, for regulatory legislation affecting ordinary commercial transactions is not to be pronounced unconstitutional unless in the light of the facts made known or generally assumed it is of such a character as to preclude the assumption that it rests upon some rational basis within the knowledge and experience of the legislators.
This doctrine gave Congress wide latitude to regulate in commerce cases like the one at issue here.

Stone expanded on these ideas in a footnote to his opinion that has become one of the hallmarks of modern American jurisprudence. In the famous "footnote four," Stone suggested that there may be circumstances in which the Court must exercise a more rigorous form of judicial review, known in legal circles as "strict scrutiny." He named three specific types of cases in which this narrower presumption of constitutionality should prevail. First, he urged special judicial review in cases where "legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten Amendments." Second, he cited cases of "legislation which restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation," such as voting rights and freedom of assembly cases. Finally, and most importantly for the course of American law, he called for heightened review of cases where "prejudice against discrete and insular minorities" may tend "to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities." In essence, Stone was creating a hierarchy of cases, each with its own standard of judicial review. Commercial regulation cases would be viewed with the least amount of scrutiny, because it was to be assumed that the legislators were acting with good reason unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. Cases involving the curtailment of political liberties or discrimination against religious or ethnic groups, values at the heart of a democratic society, were accorded the most intense scrutiny the Court could provide.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940United States v. Carolene Products Company - A Dispute Over Filled Milk, High Court Rules, Debate And Dissent