In 1916, Congress enacted the Keating-Owen
Act (a child labor law). This
prohibited the transportation in interstate commerce of goods produced in
factories that violated the law.
Congress justified the Act
on the basis of Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution, aka the Interstate
The stated goal of the Keating-Owen
Act was to prevent producers in
States that exploit kids to make cheap products from having an unfair
advantage over producers in States that have strict laws.
The father of two children
employed in a cotton mill in North Carolina sued for an injunction against
enforcement of the act on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
What a great Dad!
The North Carolina Courts
granted the injunction. The US appealed.
The US Supreme Court sustained
The US Supreme Court found
that the purpose of the Keating-Owen Act was not to regulate interstate commerce, but to standardize
child labor laws.
The Court found that in order
to invoke the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Federal government had to actually be regulating interstate
commerce. Congress couldn't use it as an excuse to regulate other things
that they would normally not be allowed to regulate (like labor laws, which
are typically considered a State issue)
"The commerce clause
was not intended to give to Congress a general authority to equalize
The Court found that the 10th
Amendment offered substantive
protection to the States by limiting the Federal government's powers to
those specifically enumerated in the Constitution.
In a dissent, it was argued
that if an act is within the powers specifically conferred upon Congress,
it is not made any less constitutional because of the indirect effects
that it may have, however obvious it may be that it will have those
So basically if Congress has
the power to stop transport of goods across State lines, they could ban
it for any reason they like, even one who's purpose is to regulate State
laws which Congress has no direct power over.
"States may regulate
their internal affairs and their domestic commerce as they like. But
when they seek to send their products across State lines they are no
longer within their rights."
This ruling was later
overturned and repudiated in a series of decisions handed down in the late
1930s. Specifically in the case of United States v. Darby Lumber Co. (312 U.S. 100 (1941)). In those cases, the
Court agreed with the dissent's opinion in this case.
One reason to have Federal
laws for things like this is that if there isn't, there will be a
"race to the bottom," where companies will move from States with
restrictive labor laws to States without restrictive labor laws. Only the
Federal government can harmonize different State laws.