Mulford v. Smith

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307 U.S. 38 (1939), argued 8 Mar. 1939, decided 17 Apr. 1939 by vote of 7 to 2; Roberts for the Court, Butler and McReynolds in dissent. This case involved a challenge to the constitutionality of the Second Agricultural Adjustment Act (1938). In holding this important federal law constitutional, the Court said that its January 1936 decision in United States v. Butler, which struck down the original Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933), was a mistake. The justice who wrote the majority opinion in Butler was Owen Roberts, the same justice who wrote the decision in Mulford v. Smith.

Both Agricultural Adjustment acts were motivated by Congress's desire to boost the disastrously low prices for agricultural products during the Great Depression. In speaking for the six-member majority in Butler, Roberts had held that the Agricultural Adjustment Act's processing tax, which provided the revenue to underwrite crop subsidies and soil restrictions, was an unconstitutional infringement on the states’ rights to regulate agriculture.

Yet in Mulford, Roberts and the Court majority voted to uphold a tobacco quota on production that had been instituted by the Second Agricultural Adjustment Act. In this decision, Roberts concluded that Congress's Article I power “to regulate Commerce … among the several states” provided ample justification for the agricultural market restrictions set by the second act. Thus, in 1939 Roberts acknowledged what he had refused to recognize in 1936: that the problems confronting agriculture were national in scope and required national legislative attention.

John W. Johnson

Subjects: Law.

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