Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia

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12 How. (53 U.S.) 299 (1852), argued 9–11 Feb. 1852, decided 2 Mar. 1852 by vote of 6 to 2; Curtis for the Court, Daniel concurring, McLean and Wayne in dissent, McKinley absent. A Pennsylvania statute provided that any vessel entering or leaving the port of Philadelphia was required to pay one-half the usual pilotage fee if its master chose not to employ a local pilot. The fee went into a fund for the relief of infirm pilots and pilots’ widows and orphans. The fee affected interstate and international commerce flowing into Philadelphia and was challenged as an interference with Congress's power to regulate such commerce.

The Taney Court had previously been unable to resolve Commerce Clause issues presented in New York v. Miln (1837), the License Cases (1847), and the Passenger Cases (1849) because of complications posed by issues of slavery and federalism that lay under the surface of all Commerce Clause cases of the era. The Court had either evaded such questions or, in trying to resolve them, had splintered confusingly. In Cooley, the Court was finally able to achieve a coherent resolution of a Commerce Clause issue. Justice Benjamin R. Curtis defined the question in terms of the subject matter of regulation rather than the nature of the commerce power, with some subjects being national in scope and others, like pilotage laws, local. Though this formula failed to enlist the support of states’-rights enthusiasts such as Justice Peter V. Daniel and nationalists such as Justices John McLean and James M. Wayne, its pragmatism has proved enduring. Cooley ranks with Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) as one of the most important Commerce Clause cases of the nineteenth century.

Donald M. Roper

Subjects: Law.

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