Gibbons v. Ogden (Commerce Clause)

What happened?

In the early 19th century, states began issuing exclusive licenses to people to navigate certain routes and waterways adjacent or near their borders with steamboats.  Aaron Ogden had the rights to a route between Elizabethtown, NJ and New York City.  He was in business with Thomas Gibbons (from GA) to operate his steamboats on that route.  Gibbons went behind Ogden’s back and started operating other steamboats on Ogden’s route that were licensed by an old federal law regulating coastal trade.  Ogden filed for injunction against Gibbons and won.  Gibbons appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the federal law should supersede the state licensing and that Congress had interstate commerce power under the Constitution.  Ogden claimed that states regularly passed laws regulating commerce and should have concurrent power with Congress to regulate commerce.

How did the Court rule?

Unanimously for Gibbons.  The Court affirmed the plenary right of Congress over interstate commerce.  The Court defined ‘commerce’ as more than just traffic but also the trade of commodities (including navigation).  The Commerce Clause (Art. 1, Sec. 8) reads that Congress has power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states”.  The Court interpreted “among the several states” as a thing “intermingled with” the separate states, broadening Congressional power to regulate things affecting more than one state.

Why is it important?

Gibbons v. Ogden laid the groundwork for the modern interpretation of the Commerce Clause, which affects virtually all major industries and businesses today due to the interstate nature of our economy.  Over time the Court has begun to roll back some of the broad CC interpretations (specifically under the current Roberts Court) but Gibbons first gave Congress the power to regulate interstate Commerce.

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