Darby Lumber Co., United States v.

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312 U.S. 100 (1941), argued 19–20 Dec. 1940, decided 3 Feb. 1941 by vote of 9 to 0; Stone for the Court. The Fair Labor Standards Act (often called the Wages and Hours Act), adopted in 1938, was the last major piece of New Deal legislation. The statute provided for the setting of minimum wages and maximum hours for all employees in industries whose products were shipped in interstate commerce and made violation of the wages and hours standards unlawful. The act applied to all employees “engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.”

The Constitution authorizes Congress “to regulate commerce … among the several states.” In the classic case of Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) the Supreme Court gave a broad reading to the federal commerce power, and regulation of commerce has been a major congressional concern. Around the beginning of the twentieth century Congress began to explore use of the Commerce Clause as a kind of national police power. An act forbidding the interstate transportation of lottery tickets was upheld in Champion v. Ames (1903). The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 prohibited the introduction of impure food and drugs into the states by interstate commerce. The Mann Act (1910), forbidding the transportation of women in interstate commerce for the purpose of prostitution and debauchery, was upheld in Hoke v. United States (1913).

This technique of closing the channels of commerce to achieve social welfare purposes was then utilized by Congress in the federal Child Labor Act of 1916. The statute prohibited transportation in interstate commerce for products of commercial operations where children under fourteen years of age had been employed and where certain dangerous conditions had prevailed. The Supreme Court called a halt to such use of the commerce power in the famous case of Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), where a bare majority held the Child Labor Act unconstitutional as an infringement on powers reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment. The Court's argument was based on the concept of dual federalism—that powers delegated to the national government by the Constitution are nevertheless limited by the reserved powers of the states. In a noteworthy dissent to the Hammer decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes rejected this view, arguing that use of a power specifically conferred on Congress by the Constitution “is not made any less constitutional because of the indirect effects that it may have” (p. 277).

When the Fair Labor Standards Act came before the Supreme Court in United States v. Darby, it was upheld unanimously. Because Congress in adopting the act had exercised its undoubted power over the movement of goods across state lines, there would have been little need for discussion of the constitutional issue except for the decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart. Justice Harlan F. Stone, writing for the Court, had to dispose of that roadblock. Invoking “the powerful and now classic dissent of Mr. Justice Holmes,” Stone wrote, “The conclusion is inescapable that Hammer v. Dagenhart was a departure from the principles which have prevailed in the interpretation of the Commerce Clause both before and since the decision and that such vitality, as a precedent, as it then had has long since been exhausted. It should be and now is overruled” (pp. 115–116).


Subjects: Law.

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