Landmark Supreme Court Case: U.S. v. Carolene Products (1938)
U.S. v. Carolene Products (1938) is the 73rd landmark Supreme Court case, the 33rd 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.
U.S. v. Carolene Products (1938)
The previous term, the Court had dramatically enlarged the activities that were considered to be in or to affect interstate commerce. It had also altered its settled jurisprudence in the area of substantive due process, the doctrine dealing with rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. The changes meant that many New Deal programs that the Court would previously have struck down as unconstitutional would now be found constitutional.
A 1923 act of Congress banned the interstate shipment of “filled milk” (skimmed milk mixed with fat or oil other than milk fat). Carolene Products, a milk manufacturer, was indicted under the Act. The trial court dismissed the indictment.
On appeal to the federal government, the court was tasked with determining whether the Act was unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment. Carolene Products argued that the law lacked rational basis and also that Congress did not regulate the use of oleomargarine, which substituted vegetable fats for butter fat, in interstate commerce. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling.
Q: Does the law violate the Commerce Power granted to Congress in Article I Section 8 and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment?
A: No. The court upheld the act.
6-1 holding the Filled Milk Act did not exceed the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, or violate due process under the Fifth Amendment. The law was “presumptively constitutional” properly within legislative discretion. Applying a “rational basis” test, it was not for the courts to overrule because it was supported by substantial public-health evidence and was not arbitrary or irrational.
Carolene Products is best known for its fourth footnote, considered to be “the most famous footnote in constitutional law.” Although the Court had applied minimal scrutiny (rational basis review) to the economic regulation in this case, Footnote Four reserved for other types of cases other, stricter standards of review. Legislation aimed at “discrete and insular minorities” without the normal protections of the political process would be one exception to the presumption of constitutionality and justify a heightened standard of judicial review.
Next Economics Case: U.S. v. Darby Lumber (1941)
Previous Economics Case: NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin (1937)
Next Case: Erie Railroad v. Tompkins (1938)
Previous Case: Palko v. Connecticut (1937)