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E. C. Knight Co., United States v.


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156 U.S. 1 (1895), argued 24 Oct. 1894, decided 21 Jan. 1895 by vote of 8 to 1; Fuller for the Court, Harlan in dissent. In early 1892, the American Sugar Refining Company, the corporate successor to the Sugar Trust, acquired all of the stock of its leading competitors. The company thereby secured control of almost all sugar refining in the United States, and the federal government soon filed a civil challenge under the newly enacted Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

In its first decision interpreting the act, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's dismissal of the government's suit. Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller declared that the key question was whether a monopoly of manufacturing could be suppressed under the Sherman Act. He stressed the power of each state to protect the lives, health, property, and morals of its citizens, and noted that this power encompassed the regulation of practical monopolies within the state's borders. In Fuller's view, while the Constitution granted Congress exclusive authority to regulate activities that constituted commerce among the several states, activities not belonging to interstate or foreign commerce fell exclusively within the jurisdiction of state police power.

The Court conceded that the ability to control the manufacture of an article involved simultaneous control over the article's subsequent disposition in interstate commerce and further agreed that combinations to control manufacturing might tend to restrain interstate trade. The Court declared, however, that this was an insufficient basis for congressional regulation because these were not direct but merely indirect or incidental effects on interstate commerce. The Court insisted upon a sharp distinction between manufacturing and commerce and stated that a producer's intention to distribute its products in other states subsequent to their manufacture provided no basis for the exercise of congressional Commerce Clause power. If indirect effects on interstate commerce could justify a federal challenge to the sale of manufacturing stock and the acquisition of refineries, the Court declared, Congress would have sweeping power to regulate the details of not only manufacturing but of “every branch of human industry” (p. 14) whenever ultimate interstate distribution was contemplated. The states simultaneously would be denied any police power authority over these matters within their own borders. The Court declared that Congress had framed the Sherman Act in the light of these “well-settled principles” (p. 16) and that the government's suit therefore exceeded the scope of the act.

Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented. He believed that the Sherman Act constitutionally could reach combinations like the one challenged in this case. Harlan declared that such dominating combinations had the object and ability to control not only manufacturing but also the price at which manufactured goods were sold in interstate commerce and therefore should be deemed to affect interstate commerce directly. Accordingly, he believed, Congress could seek to remove such combinations because they constituted unreasonable restraints of interstate trade. In Harlan's view, if Congress was not empowered to deal with such threatening interstate combinations, Americans would be left unprotected because individual states would not have sufficient power to control them effectively.

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Subjects: Law.


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