Massachusetts v. Mellon

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262 U.S. 447 (1923), argued 3 and 4 May 1923, decided 4 June 1923 by vote of 9 to 0; Sutherland for the Court. In 1921 Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided federal grants to promote state infant and maternity care programs. Congress had passed its first grant program, the Weeks Act, in 1911 to encourage state forest fire prevention programs, but there had been no constitutional challenge until Massachusetts attacked the Maternity Act in an original suit, charging that the law and its grants induced states to yield sovereign rights reserved to them and that the burden of taxation fell unequally on its citizens. The Court heard this case in conjunction with Frothingham v. Mellon, a taxpayer suit challenging the use of tax revenues for such programs.

Speaking for a unanimous Court, Justice George Sutherland held that the offer of grants did not force the states to do anything or to yield any rights, except if they voluntarily chose to participate in the program. Nor could he find any right of the states that had been threatened by the act that fell within judicial cognizance, and without some specific issue, the Court “is without authority to pass abstract opinions upon the constitutionality of acts of Congress” (p. 485). He found no burden other than that of taxation, which fell not on the states but on their inhabitants, who, as citizens of the United States, were properly subject to federal taxes. Perhaps most important, the Court held that a state could not, in its role of parens patriae, institute judicial proceedings to protect its citizens from operation of otherwise valid federal laws.

Melvin I. Urofsky

Subjects: Law.

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