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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Dewitt - 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 41 (1869)

Rule:

Congress has power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes, the Constitution expressly declares. But this express grant of power to regulate commerce among the states is limited by its terms; and as a virtual denial of any power to interfere with the internal trade and business of the separate states; except, indeed, as a necessary and proper means for carrying into execution some other power expressly granted or vested.

Facts:

Section 29 of the Act of Congress, 14 Stat. 484 (1867), made it a misdemeanor for any person to mix for sale naphtha and illuminating oils, or to knowingly sell or keep for sale, or offer for sale such mixture, or sell or offer for sale oil made from petroleum for illuminating purposes. Defendant Dewitt was indicted for the offering for sale oil made of petroleum in violation of § 29. There was no allegation that the sale was in violation or evasion of any tax imposed on the oil sold. It was alleged only that the sale was made contrary § 29. At trial in federal circuit court, the court certified two questions to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Issue:

  1. Was Congress empowered by the Constitution to prohibit trade within the limits of a State?
  2. Did the facts charged in the indictment constitute any offence under any valid and constitutional law of the United States?

Answer:

1) No; 2) No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States answered both certified questions in the negative. The Court first ruled that Congress did not have the power under the Constitution to prohibit trade within the limits of a State. The Court found that § 29 was a police regulation that related exclusively to the internal trade of the states. Accordingly, it only had effect where the legislative authority of Congress excluded, territorially, all State legislation, as for example, in the District of Columbia. Within State limits, it had no constitutional operation. The Court then ruled that the facts charged in the indictment did not constitute an offense because § 29 was not a valid and constitutional law of the United States.

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