Hammer v. Dagenhart
247 U.S. 251 (1918)

  • In 1916, Congress enacted the Keating-Owen Act (a child labor law). This prohibited the transportation in interstate commerce of goods produced in factories that violated the law.
    • Congress justified the Act on the basis of Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution, aka the Interstate Commerce Clause.
    • The stated goal of the Keating-Owen Act was to prevent producers in States that exploit kids to make cheap products from having an unfair advantage over producers in States that have strict laws.
  • The father of two children employed in a cotton mill in North Carolina sued for an injunction against enforcement of the act on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
    • What a great Dad!
  • The North Carolina Courts granted the injunction. The US appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court sustained the injunction.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the purpose of the Keating-Owen Act was not to regulate interstate commerce, but to standardize child labor laws.
    • The Court found that in order to invoke the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Federal government had to actually be regulating interstate commerce. Congress couldn’t use it as an excuse to regulate other things that they would normally not be allowed to regulate (like labor laws, which are typically considered a State issue)
      • “The commerce clause was not intended to give to Congress a general authority to equalize such conditions.”
    • The Court found that the 10th Amendment offered substantive protection to the States by limiting the Federal government’s powers to those specifically enumerated in the Constitution.
  • In a dissent, it was argued that if an act is within the powers specifically conferred upon Congress, it is not made any less constitutional because of the indirect effects that it may have, however obvious it may be that it will have those effects.
    • So basically if Congress has the power to stop transport of goods across State lines, they could ban it for any reason they like, even one who’s purpose is to regulate State laws which Congress has no direct power over.
    • “States may regulate their internal affairs and their domestic commerce as they like. But when they seek to send their products across State lines they are no longer within their rights.”
  • This ruling was later overturned and repudiated in a series of decisions handed down in the late 1930s. Specifically in the case of United States v. Darby Lumber Co. (312 U.S. 100 (1941)). In those cases, the Court agreed with the dissent’s opinion in this case.
  • One reason to have Federal laws for things like this is that if there isn’t, there will be a “race to the bottom,” where companies will move from States with restrictive labor laws to States without restrictive labor laws. Only the Federal government can harmonize different State laws.