Landmark Supreme Court Case: Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)
Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) is the 42nd landmark Supreme Court case, the eighteenth in the Economics module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)
During the Progressive Era, public sentiment in the United States turned against what was perceived as increasingly intolerable child labor conditions. In response, Congress passed the Keating–Owen Act, prohibiting the sale in interstate commerce of any merchandise that had been made either by children under the age of fourteen, or by children under sixteen who worked more than sixty hours per week.
Reuben Dagenhart’s father — Roland — had sued on behalf of his freedom to allow his fourteen year old son to work in a textile mill. A district court ruled the statute unconstitutional, which caused United States Attorney William C. Hammer to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Q: Does the congressional act violate the Commerce Clause, the Tenth Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment?
A: The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act was outside the Commerce Power and the regulation of production was a power reserved to the states via the Tenth Amendment
5-4 decision ruling Congress has no power under the Commerce Clause to regulate labor conditions. The Court stated production was not commerce, and regulation of the former was for the states. Congress does not have the power to regulate commerce of goods that are manufactured by children.
Drawing a distinction between the manufacture of goods and the regulation of certain goods themselves “inherently evil”, the Court maintained that the issue did not concern the power to keep certain immoral products out of the stream of interstate commerce, distinguishing previous cases upholding Congress’ power to control lottery schemes, prostitution, and liquor. The Court reasoned that in those cases, the goods themselves were inherently immoral and thus open to congressional scrutiny. In this case, however, the issue at hand was the manufacture of cotton, a good whose use is not immoral.
The Court further held that the manufacture of cotton did not in itself constitute interstate commerce, and recognized that disparate labor regulations placed the various states on unequal ground in terms of economic competitiveness, but it specifically stated that Congress could not address such inequality, as it was within the right of states to enact differing laws within the scope of their police powers.
Finally, the court added “expressly” to the intent of the framers in the Tenth Amendment after they purposely left the word expressly out because they believed they could not possibly specify every power that might be needed in the future to run the government. The case would be overruled by United States v. Darby Lumber Co. (1941).
Next Economics Case: Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon (1922)
Previous Economics Case: Muller v. Oregon (1908)
Next Case: Schenck v. U.S. (1918)
Previous Case: Buchanan v. Warley (1917)