Landmark Supreme Court Case: U.S. v. EC Knight (1895)
U.S. v. EC Knight (1895) is the 30th landmark Supreme Court case, the eleventh case 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. EC Knight (1895)
EC Knight Facts:
The Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 as a response to the public concern in the growth of giant corporations controlling transportation, industry, and commerce. The Act aimed to stop the concentration of wealth and economic power in the hands of the few. It outlawed “every contract, combination…or conspiracy, in restraint of trade” or interstate commerce, and it declared every attempt to monopolize any part of trade or commerce to be illegal.
In 1892, the American Sugar Refining Company gained control of the E. C. Knight Company and several others which resulted in a 98% monopoly of the American sugar refining industry. President Grover Cleveland, in his second term of office (1893–1897), directed the national government to sue E.C. Knight Company under the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act to prevent the acquisition. Also known as the “Sugar Trust Case”.
Q: Did Congress exceed its constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause when it enacted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act?
A: No. However, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act did not apply to manufacturing because the manufacturing of refined sugar was confined within a single state.
EC Knight Conclusion
8-1 decision ruling manufacturing is not considered an area that can be regulated by Congress pursuant to the commerce clause. The Court severely limited the federal government’s power to pursue antitrust actions under the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Manufacturing—in this case, refining—was a local activity not subject to congressional regulation of interstate commerce, thus giving state governments the sole power to take legal action against manufacturing monopolies. Any action against manufacturing monopolies would need to be taken by individual states, making such regulation extremely difficult with regards to out-of-state monopolies because states are prohibited from discriminating against out-of-state goods by, among other things, the Dormant Commerce Clause and Article I section 10 of the U.S. Constitution.
The case has never been overruled and the ruling prevailed until the end of the 1930s, when the court took a different position on the national government’s power to regulate the economy. In Swift & Company v. U.S. (1905) and subsequent cases, the Court has held that Congress can regulate manufacturing when it affects interstate commerce. It’s become a precedent narrowed to its precise facts.
Next Economics Case: Chicago B&Q Railroad v. Chicago (1897)
Previous Economics Case: Mugler v. Kansas (1887)
Next Case: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Previous Case: In re Neagle (1890)