Definition of Terms

Clause 3. The Congress shall have Power * * * To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.


Commerce.—The etymology of the word “commerce”664 carries the primary meaning of traffic, of transporting goods across state lines for sale. This possibly narrow constitutional conception was rejected by Chief Justice Marshall in Gibbons v. Ogden,665 which remains one of the seminal cases dealing with the Constitution. The case arose because of a monopoly granted by the New York legislature on the operation of steam-propelled vessels on its waters, a monopoly challenged by Gibbons, who transported passengers from New Jersey to New York pursuant to privileges granted by an act of Congress.666 The New York monopoly was not in conflict with the congressional regulation of commerce, argued the monopolists, because the vessels carried only passengers between the two states and were thus not engaged in traffic, in “commerce” in the constitutional sense.

“The subject to be regulated is commerce,” the Chief Justice wrote. “The counsel for the appellee would limit it to traffic, to buying and selling, or the interchange of commodities, and do not admit that it comprehends navigation. This would restrict a general term, applicable to many objects, to one of its significations. Commerce, undoubtedly, is traffic, but it is something more—it is intercourse.”667 The term, therefore, included navigation, a conclusion that Marshall also supported by appeal to general understanding, to the prohibition in Article I, § 9, against any preference being given “by any regulation of commerce or revenue, to the ports of one State over those of another,” and to the admitted and demonstrated power of Congress to impose embargoes.668

Marshall qualified the word “intercourse” with the word “commercial,” thus retaining the element of monetary transactions.669 But, today, “commerce” in the constitutional sense, and hence “interstate commerce,” covers every species of movement of persons and things, whether for profit or not, across state lines,670 every species of communication, every species of transmission of intelligence, whether for commercial purposes or otherwise,671 every species of commercial negotiation that will involve sooner or later an act of transportation of persons or things, or the flow of services or power, across state lines.672

There was a long period in the Court’s history when a majority of the Justices, seeking to curb the regulatory powers of the Federal Government by various means, held that certain things were not encompassed by the Commerce Clause because they were neither interstate commerce nor bore a sufficient nexus to interstate commerce. Thus, at one time, the Court held that mining or manufacturing, even when the product would move in interstate commerce, was not reachable under the Commerce Clause;673 it held insurance transactions carried on across state lines not to be commerce,674 and that exhibitions of baseball between professional teams that travel from state to state were not in commerce.675 Similarly, it held that the Commerce Clause was not applicable to the making of contracts for the insertion of advertisements in periodicals in another state676 or to the making of contracts for personal services to be rendered in another state.677

Later decisions either have overturned or have undermined all of these holdings. The gathering of news by a press association and its transmission to client newspapers are interstate commerce.678 The activities of Group Health Association, Inc. , which serves only its own members, are “trade” and capable of becoming interstate commerce;679 the business of insurance when transacted between an insurer and an insured in different states is interstate commerce.680 But most important of all there was the development of, or more accurately the return to,681 the rationales by which manufacturing,682 mining,683 business transactions,684 and the like, which are antecedent to or subsequent to a move across state lines, are conceived to be part of an integrated commercial whole and therefore subject to the reach of the commerce power.

Among the Several States.—Continuing in Gibbons v. Ogden, Chief Justice Marshall observed that the phrase “among the several States” was “not one which would probably have been selected to indicate the completely interior traffic of a state.” It must therefore have been selected to exclude “the exclusively internal commerce of a state.” Although, of course, the phrase “may very properly be restricted to that commerce which concerns more states than one,” it is obvious that “[c]ommerce among the states, cannot stop at the external boundary line of each state, but may be introduced into the interior.” The Chief Justice then succinctly stated the rule, which, though restricted in some periods, continues to govern the interpretation of the clause. “The genius and character of the whole government seem to be, that its action is to be applied to all the external concerns of the nation, and to those internal concerns which affect the states generally; but not to those which are completely within a particular state, which do not affect other states, and with which it is not necessary to interfere, for the purpose of executing some of the general powers of the government.”685

Recognition of an “exclusively internal” commerce of a state, or “intrastate commerce” in today’s terms, was regarded as setting out an area of state concern that Congress was precluded from reaching.686 Although these cases seemingly visualized Congress’s power arising only when there was an actual crossing of state boundaries, this view ignored Marshall’s equation of intrastate commerce that affects other states or with which it is necessary to interfere in order to effectuate congressional power with those actions which are purely interstate. This equation came back into its own, both with the Court’s stress on the “current of commerce” bringing each element in the current within Congress’s regulatory power,687 with the emphasis on the interrelationships of industrial production to interstate commerce688 but especially with the emphasis that even minor transactions have an effect on interstate commerce689 and that the cumulative effect of many minor transactions with no separate effect on interstate commerce, when they are viewed as a class, may be sufficient to merit congressional regulation.690 “Commerce among the states must, of necessity, be commerce with[in] the states. . . . The power of congress, then, whatever it may be, must be exercised within the territorial jurisdiction of the several states.”691

Regulate.— “We are now arrived at the inquiry—what is this power?” continued the Chief Justice. “It is the power to regulate; that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the constitution . . . If, as has always been understood, the sovereignty of congress, though limited to specified objects, is plenary as to those objects, the power over commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, is vested in Congress as absolutely as it would be in a single government, having in its constitution the same restrictions on the exercise of the power as are found in the constitution of the United States.”692

Of course, the power to regulate commerce is the power to prescribe conditions and rules for the carrying-on of commercial transactions, the keeping-free of channels of commerce, the regulating of prices and terms of sale. Even if the clause granted only this power, the scope would be wide, but it extends to include many more purposes than these. “Congress can certainly regulate interstate commerce to the extent of forbidding and punishing the use of such commerce as an agency to promote immorality, dishonesty, or the spread of any evil or harm to the people of other states from the state of origin. In doing this, it is merely exercising the police power, for the benefit of the public, within the field of interstate commerce.”693 Thus, in upholding a federal statute prohibiting the shipment in interstate commerce of goods made with child labor, not because the goods were intrinsically harmful but in order to extirpate child labor, the Court said: “It is no objection to the assertion of the power to regulate commerce that its exercise is attended by the same incidents which attend the exercise of the police power of the states.”694

The power has been exercised to enforce majority conceptions of morality,695 to ban racial discrimination in public accommodations,696 and to protect the public against evils both natural and contrived by people.697 The power to regulate interstate commerce is, therefore, rightly regarded as the most potent grant of authority in section 8.

Necessary and Proper Clause.—All grants of power to Congress in § 8, as elsewhere, must be read in conjunction with the Necessary and Proper Clause, § 8, cl. 18, which authorizes Congress “[t]o make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing powers.” Chief Justice Marshall alluded to the power thus enhanced by this clause when he said that the regulatory power did not extend “to those internal concerns [of a state] . . . with which it is not necessary to interfere, for the purpose of executing some of the general powers of the government.”698 There are numerous cases permitting Congress to reach “purely” intrastate activities on the theory, combined with the previously mentioned emphasis on the cumulative effect of minor transactions, that it is necessary to regulate them in order that the regulation of interstate activities might be fully effectuated.699 In other cases, the clause may not have been directly cited, but the dictates of Chief Justice Marshall have been used to justify more expansive applications of the commerce power.700

Federalism Limits on Exercise of Commerce Power.—As is recounted below, prior to reconsideration of the federal commerce power in the 1930s, the Court in effect followed a doctrine of “dual federalism,” under which Congress’s power to regulate much activity depended on whether it had a “direct” rather than an “indirect” effect on interstate commerce.701 When the restrictive interpretation was swept away during and after the New Deal, the question of federalism limits respecting congressional regulation of private activities became moot. However, in a number of instances the states engaged in commercial activities that would be regulated by federal legislation if the enterprise were privately owned, and the Court easily sustained application of federal law to these state proprietary activities.702 However, as Congress began to extend regulation to state governmental activities, the judicial response was inconsistent and wavering.703 Although the Court may shift again to constrain federal power on federalism grounds, at the present time the rule is that Congress lacks authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate the states as states in some circumstances, namely, when the federal statutory provisions “commandeer” a state’s legislative or executive authority in order to implement a regulatory program.704

664 OED: “com– together, with, + merx, merci- merchandise, ware.”

665 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1 (1824).

666 Act of February 18, 1793, 1 Stat. 305, entitled “An Act for enrolling and licensing ships or vessels to be employed in the coasting trade and fisheries, and for regulating the same.”

667 Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 189 (1824).

668 22 U.S. at 190–94.

669 22 U.S. at 193.

670 As we will see, however, in many later formulations the crossing of state lines is no longer the sine qua non; wholly intrastate transactions with substantial effects on interstate commerce may suffice.

671 E.g., United States v. Simpson, 252 U.S. 465 (1920); Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470 (1917).

672 “Not only, then, may transactions be commerce though non-commercial; they may be commerce though illegal and sporadic, and though they do not utilize common carriers or concern the flow of anything more tangible than electrons and information.” United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Ass’n, 322 U.S. 533, 549–50 (1944).

673 Kidd v. Pearson, 128 U.S. 1 (1888); Oliver Iron Co. v. Lord, 262 U.S. 172 (1923); United States v. E. C. Knight Co., 156 U.S. 1 (1895); see also Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238 (1936).

674 Paul v. Virginia, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 168 (1869); see also the cases to this effect cited in United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Ass’n, 322 U.S. 533, 543–545, 567–568, 578 (1944).

675 Federal Baseball League v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 259 U.S. 200 (1922). When called on to reconsider its decision, the Court declined, noting that Congress had not seen fit to bring the business under the antitrust laws by legislation having prospective effect and that the business had developed under the understanding that it was not subject to these laws, a reversal of which would have retroactive effect. Toolson v. New York Yankees, 346 U.S. 356 (1953). In Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972), the Court recognized these decisions as aberrations, but it thought the doctrine entitled to the benefits of stare decisis, as Congress was free to change it at any time. The same considerations not being present, the Court has held that businesses conducted on a multistate basis, but built around local exhibitions, are in commerce and subject to, inter alia, the antitrust laws, in the instance of professional football, Radovich v. National Football League, 352 U.S. 445 (1957), professional boxing, United States v. International Boxing Club, 348 U.S. 236 (1955), and legitimate theatrical productions. United States v. Shubert, 348 U.S. 222 (1955).

676 Blumenstock Bros. v. Curtis Pub. Co., 252 U.S. 436 (1920).

677 Williams v. Fears, 179 U.S. 270 (1900). See also Diamond Glue Co. v. United States Glue Co., 187 U.S. 611 (1903); Browning v. City of Waycross, 233 U.S. 16 (1914); General Railway Signal Co. v. Virginia, 246 U.S. 500 (1918). But see York Manufacturing Co. v. Colley, 247 U.S. 21 (1918).

678 Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1 (1945).

679 American Medical Ass’n v. United States, 317 U.S. 519 (1943). Cf. United States v. Oregon Medical Society, 343 U.S. 326 (1952).

680 United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Ass’n, 322 U.S. 533 (1944).

681 “It has been truly said, that commerce, as the word is used in the constitution, is a unit, every part of which is indicated by the term.” Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 194 (1824). See also id. at 195–196.

682 NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937).

683 Sunshine Anthracite Coal Co. v. Adkins, 310 U.S. 381 (1940). See also Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining & Recl. Ass’n, 452 U.S. 264, 275–283 (1981); Mulford v. Smith, 307 U.S. 38 (1939) (agricultural production).

684 Swift & Co. v. United States, 196 U.S. 375 (1905); Stafford v. Wallace, 258 U.S. 495 (1922); Chicago Board of Trade v. Olsen, 262 U.S. 1 (1923).

685 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 194, 195 (1824).

686 New York v. Miln, 36 U.S. (11 Pet.) 102 (1837); License Cases, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 504 (1847); Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. (7 How.) 283 (1849); Patterson v. Kentucky, 97 U.S. 501 (1879); Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82 (1879); Kidd v. Pearson, 128 U.S. 1 (1888); Illinois Central R.R. v. McKendree, 203 U.S. 514 (1906); Keller v. United States, 213 U.S. 138 (1909); Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 (1918); Oliver Iron Co. v. Lord, 262 U.S. 172 (1923).

687 Swift & Co. v. United States, 196 U.S. 375 (1905); Stafford v. Wallace, 258 U.S. 495 (1922); Chicago Board of Trade v. Olsen, 262 U.S. 1 (1923).

688 NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937).

689 NLRB v. Fainblatt, 306 U.S. 601 (1939); Kirschbaum v. Walling, 316 U.S. 517 (1942); United States v. Wrightwood Dairy Co., 315 U.S. 110 (1942); Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942); NLRB v. Reliance Fuel Oil Co., 371 U.S. 224 (1963); Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964); Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183 (1968); McLain v. Real Estate Bd. of New Orleans, 444 U.S. 232, 241–243 (1980); Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining & Reclamation Ass’n, 452 U.S. 264 (1981).

690 United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100 (1941); Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964); Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183 (1968); Perez v. United States, 402 U.S. 146 (1971); Russell v. United States, 471 U.S. 858 (1985); Summit Health, Ltd. v. Pinhas, 500 U.S. 322 (1991).

691 Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 196 (1824). Commerce “among the several States” does not comprise commerce of the District of Columbia nor of the territories of the United States. Congress’s power over their commerce is an incident of its general power over them. Stoutenburgh v. Hennick, 129 U.S. 141 (1889); Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers v. United States, 286 U.S. 427 (1932); In re Bryant, 4 Fed. Cas. 514 (No. 2067) (D. Oreg. 1865). Transportation between two points in the same state, when a part of the route is a loop outside the state, is interstate commerce. Hanley v. Kansas City Southern Ry. Co., 187 U.S. 617 (1903); Western Union Tel. Co. v. Speight, 254 U.S. 17 (1920). But such a deviation cannot be solely for the purpose of evading a tax or regulation in order to be exempt from the state’s reach. Greyhound Lines v. Mealey, 334 U.S. 653, 660 (1948); Eichholz v. Public Service Comm’n, 306 U.S. 268, 274 (1939). Red cap services performed at a transfer point within the state of departure but in conjunction with an interstate trip are reachable. New York, N.H. & H. R.R. v. Nothnagle, 346 U.S. 128 (1953).

692 Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 196–197 (1824).

693 Brooks v. United States, 267 U.S. 432, 436–37 (1925).

694 United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 114 (1941).

695 E.g., Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470 (1917) (transportation of female across state line for noncommercial sexual purposes); Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14 (1946) (transportation of plural wives across state lines by Mormons); United States v. Simpson, 252 U.S. 465 (1920) (transportation of five quarts of whiskey across state line for personal consumption).

696 Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964); Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964); Daniel v. Paul, 395 U.S. 298 (1969).

697 E.g., Reid v. Colorado, 187 U.S. 137 (1902) (transportation of diseased livestock across state line); Perez v. United States, 402 U.S. 146 (1971) (prohibition of all loansharking).

698 Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 195 (1824).

699 E.g., Houston & Texas Ry. v. United States, 234 U.S. 342 (1914) (necessary for ICC to regulate rates of an intrastate train in order to effectuate its rate setting for a competing interstate train); Wisconsin R.R. Comm’n v. Chicago, B. & Q. R.R., 257 U.S. 563 (1922) (same); Southern Ry. v. United States, 222 U.S. 20 (1911) (upholding requirement of same safety equipment on intrastate as interstate trains). See also Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942); United States v. Wrightwood Dairy Co., 315 U.S. 110 (1942); Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005).

700 See, e.g., United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 115–16 (1941).

701 E.g., United States v. E. C. Knight Co., 156 U.S. 1 (1895); Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 (1918). Of course, there existed much of this time a parallel doctrine under which federal power was not so limited. E.g., Houston & Texas Ry. v. United States (The Shreveport Rate Case), 234 U.S. 342 (1914).

702 E.g., California v. United States, 320 U.S. 577 (1944); California v. Taylor, 353 U.S. 553 (1957).

703 For example, federal regulation of the wages and hours of certain state and local governmental employees has alternatively been upheld and invalidated. See Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183 (1968), overruled in National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976), overruled in Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth., 469 U.S. 528 (1985).

704 New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992); Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997). For elaboration, see the discussions under the Supremacy Clause and under the Tenth Amendment.