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Law School Case Brief

Massachusetts v. Mellon - 262 U.S. 447, 43 S. Ct. 597 (1923)

Rule:

Courts have no power per se to review and annul acts of Congress on the ground that they are unconstitutional. That question may be considered only when the justification for some direct injury suffered or threatened, presenting a justiciable issue, is made to rest upon such an act. Then the power exercised is that of ascertaining and declaring the law applicable to the controversy. It amounts to little more than the negative power to disregard an unconstitutional enactment, which otherwise would stand in the way of the enforcement of a legal right. The party who invokes the power must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally

Facts:

The Act of November 23, 1921, c. 135, 42 Stat. 224, called the "Maternity Act," authorizes appropriations, apportioned among such of the States as shall accept and comply with its provisions, for the purpose of cooperating with them to reduce maternal and infant mortality and to protect the health of mothers and infants; it provides for its administration by a federal bureau in cooperation with state agencies, which are to make such reports of their operations and expenditures as the bureau may prescribe; and that, whenever the bureau shall determine that funds have not been properly expended by any State, payments to that State may be withheld. Appellant Commonwealth of Massachusetts and appellant taxpayer challenged in actions consolidated on appeal earlier court decisions denying their claims to enjoin the Act of November 23, 1921 (Act), ch. 135, 42 Stat. 224, which allegedly involved misappropriation of funds. Appellant State argued the Act was unconstitutional because it invaded areas of local concern in violation of the Constitution. Appellant taxpayer argued that misappropriations under the Act would increase future tax burdens thus taking her property without due process of law. The court on appeal affirmed the earlier decisions without considering the constitutional merits because appellate jurisdiction was improper. 

Issue:

Did the enactment of a federal law that applies tax funds to programs in which state participation is optional gives rise to a justiciable controversy between the United States government and a state or an individual taxpayer?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that appellant state presented no justiciable controversy on behalf of itself or its citizens; furthermore, appellant taxpayer lacked standing to challenge the Act because she had no subject-matter interest based simply on her taxpayer status and was not injured or threatened to be injured by the Act. The Court had no jurisdiction of an original proceeding by a State if the matter is not of justiciable character. One who invokes the power of the Court to declare an act of Congress to be unconstitutional must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid, but that he has sustained, or is in immediate danger of sustaining, some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.

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