Section 10: Powers Denied to the States
Clause 1. No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.
At the time of the Civil War, this clause was one of the provisions upon which the Court relied in holding that the Confederation formed by the seceding States could not be recognized as having any legal existence.
Within the sense of the Constitution, bills of credit signify a paper medium of exchange, intended to circulate between individuals, and between the Government and individuals, for the ordinary purposes of society. It is immaterial whether the quality of legal tender is imparted to such paper. Interest bearing certificates, in denominations not exceeding ten dollars, which were issued by loan offices established by the State of Missouri and made receivable in payment of taxes or other moneys due to the State, and in payment of the fees and salaries of state officers, were held to be bills of credit whose issuance was banned by this section.
Relying on this clause, which applies only to the States and not to the Federal Government,
Statutes passed after the Civil War with the intent and result of excluding persons who had aided the Confederacy from following certain callings, by the device of requiring them to take an oath that they had never given such aid, were held invalid as being bills of attainder, as well as ex post facto laws.
Other attempts to raise bill-of-attainder claims have been unsuccessful. A Court majority denied that a municipal ordinance that required all employees to execute oaths that they had never been affiliated with Communist or similar organizations, violated the clause, on the grounds that the ordinance merely provided standards of qualifications and eligibility for employment.
Distinguishing between civil and penal laws was at the heart of the Court's decision in Smith v. Doe
There are three categories of ex post facto laws: those "which punish[ ] as a crime an act previously committed, which was innocent when done; which make[ ] more burdensome the punishment for a crime, after its commission; or which deprive[ ] one charged with crime of any defense available according to law at the time when the act was committed."
The fact that a law is ex post facto and invalid as to crimes committed prior to its enactment does not affect its validity as to subsequent offenses.
Illustrative of the first of these punishment categories is "a law enacted after expiration of a previously applicable statute of limitations period [as] applied to revive a previously time- barred prosecution." Such a law, the Court ruled in Stogner v. California,
Illustrative of the second punishment category are statutes that changed an indeterminate sentence law to require a judge to impose the maximum sentence,
In Dobbert v. Florida,
Changes in evidentiary rules that allow conviction on less evidence than was required at the time the crime was committed can also run afoul of the ex post facto clause. This principle was applied in the Court's invalidation of retroactive application of a Texas law that eliminated the requirement that the testimony of a sexual assault victim age 14 or older must be corroborated by two other witnesses, and allowed conviction on the victim's testimony alone.
Suppose the following situation: (1) a municipality, acting under authority conferred by a state statute, has issued bonds in aid of a railway company; (2) the validity of this statute has been sustained by the highest state court; (3) later the state legislature passes an act to repeal certain taxes to meet the bonds; (4) it is sustained in doing so by a decision of the highest state court holding that the statute authorizing the bonds was unconstitutional ab initio. In such a case the Supreme Court would take an appeal from the state court and would reverse the latter's decision of un-constitutionality because of its effect in rendering operative the act to repeal the tax.
Suppose further, however, that the state court has reversed itself on the question of the constitutionality of the bonds in a suit by a creditor for payment without there having been an act of repeal. In this situation, the Supreme Court would still afford relief if the case is one between citizens of different States, which reaches it via a lower federal court.
In other words, in cases of which it has jurisdiction because of diversity of citizenship, the Court has held that the obligation of contracts is capable of impairment by subsequent judicial decisions no less than by subsequent statutes and that it is able to prevent such impairment. In cases, on the other hand, of which it obtains jurisdiction only on the constitutional ground and by appeal from a state court, it has always adhered in terms to the doctrine that the word "laws" as used in Article I, § 10, does not comprehend judicial decisions. Yet even in these cases, it will intervene to protect contracts entered into on the faith of existing decisions from an impairment that is the direct result of a reversal of such decisions, but there must be in the offing, as it were, a statute of some kind- one possibly many years older than the contract rights involved- on which to pin its decision.
In 1922, Congress, through an amendment to the Judicial Code, endeavored to extend the reviewing power of the Supreme Court to suits involving ". . . the validity of a contract wherein it is claimed that a change in the rule of law or construction of statutes by the highest court of a State applicable to such contract would be repugnant to the Constitution of the United States... ." This appeared to be an invitation to the Court to say frankly that the obligation of a contract can be impaired by a subsequent court decision. The Court, however, declined the invitation in an opinion by Chief Justice Taft that reviewed many of the cases covered in the preceding paragraphs.
Dealing with Gelpcke and adherent decisions, Chief Justice Taft said: "These cases were not writs of error to the Supreme Court of a State. They were appeals or writs of error to federal courts where recovery was sought upon municipal or county bonds or some other form of contracts, the validity of which had been sustained by decisions of the Supreme Court of a State prior to their execution, and had been denied by the same court after their issue or making. In such cases the federal courts exercising jurisdiction between citizens of different States held themselves free to decide what the state law was, and to enforce it as laid down by the state Supreme Court before the contracts were made rather than in later decisions. They did not base this conclusion on Article I, § 10, of the Federal Constitution, but on the state law as they determined it, which, in diverse citizenship cases, under the third Article of the Federal Constitution they were empowered to do. Burgess v. Seligman, 107 U.S. 20 (1883)."
Is it impaired by the acts under which the defendant holds?"
The word "obligation" undoubtedly does carry the implication that the Constitution was intended to protect only executory contracts-i.e., contracts still awaiting performance, but this implication was early rejected for a certain class of contracts, with immensely important result for the clause.
It has been subsequently held many times that municipal corporations are mere instrumentalities of the State for the more convenient administration of local governments, whose powers may be enlarged, abridged, or entirely withdrawn at the pleasure of the legislature.
On the same ground of public agency, neither appointment nor election to public office creates a contract in the sense of Article I, § 10, whether as to tenure, or salary, or duties, all of which remain, so far as the Constitution of the United States is concerned, subject to legislative modification or outright repeal.
In State Bank of Ohio v. Knoop,
Furthermore, exemptions from taxation have in certain cases been treated as gratuities repealable at will, even when conferred by specific legislative enactments. This would seem always to be the case when the beneficiaries were already in existence when the exemption was created and did nothing of a more positive nature to qualify for it than to continue in existence.
Furthermore, in its first important constitutional case, that of Chisholm v. Georgia,
One important source of this diversity of opinion is to be found in that ever welling spring of constitutional doctrine in early days, the prevalence of natural law notions and the resulting vague significance of the term "law." In Sturges v. Crowninshield, Marshall defined the obligation of contracts as "the law which binds the parties to perform their undertaking." Whence, however, comes this law? If it comes from the State alone, which Marshall was later to deny even as to private contracts,
Fletcher v. Peck
Meantime, however, the land companies had disposed of several millions of acres of their holdings to speculators and prospective settlers, and following the rescinding act some of these took counsel with Alexander Hamilton as to their rights. In an opinion which was undoubtedly known to the Court when it decided Fletcher v. Peck, Hamilton characterized the repeal as contravening "the first principles of natural justice and social policy," especially so far as it was made "to the prejudice . . . of third persons . . . innocent of the alleged fraud or corruption; . . . moreover," he added, "the Constitution of the United States, article first, section tenth, declares that no State shall pass a law impairing the obligations of contract. This must be equivalent to saying no State shall pass a law revoking, invalidating, or altering a contract. Every grant from one to another, whether the grantor be a State or an individual, is virtually a contract that the grantee shall hold and enjoy the thing granted against the grantor, and his representatives. It, therefore, appears to me that taking the terms of the Constitution in their large sense, and giving them effect according to the general spirit and policy of the provisions, the revocation of the grant by the act of the legislature of Georgia may justly be considered as contrary to the Constitution of the United States, and, therefore null. And that the courts of the United States, in cases within their jurisdiction, will be likely to pronounce it so."
So far as it invoked the obligation of contracts clause, Marshall's opinion in Fletcher v. Peck performed two creative acts. He recognized that an obligatory contract was one still to be performed-in other words, was an executory contract, also that a grant of land was an executed contract-a conveyance. But, he asserted, every grant is attended by "an implied contract" on the part of the grantor not to claim again the thing granted. Thus, grants are brought within the category of contracts having continuing obligation and so within Article I, § 10. But the question still remained of the nature of this obligation. Marshall's answer to this can only be inferred from his statement at the end of his opinion. The State of Georgia, he says, "was restrained" from the passing of the rescinding act "either by general principles which are common to our free institutions, or by particular provisions of the Constitution of the United States."
The protection thus thrown about land grants was presently extended, in the case of New Jersey v. Wilson,
In City of El Paso v. Simmons,
Secondly, a corporate charter may be regarded as a franchise constituting a vested or property interest in the hands of the holders, and therefore as forfeitable only for abuse or in accordance with its own terms. This is the way in which some of the early state courts did regard them at the outset.
The third view is the one formulated by Chief Justice Marshall in his controlling opinion in Dartmouth College v. Woodward.
A difficulty still remained, however, in the requirement that a contract, before it can have obligation, must import consideration, that is to say, must be shown not to have been entirely gratuitous on either side. Moreover, the consideration, which induced the Crown to grant a charter to Dartmouth College, was not merely a speculative one. It consisted of the donations of the donors to the important public interest of education. Fortunately or unfortunately, in dealing with this phase of the case, Marshall used more sweeping terms than were needed. "The objects for which a corporation is created," he wrote, "are universally such as the government wishes to promote. They are deemed beneficial to the country; and this benefit constitutes the consideration, and in most cases, the sole consideration of the grant." In other words, the simple fact of the charter having been granted imports consideration from the point of view of the State.
Is the right reserved by a State to "amend" or "alter" a charter without restriction? When it is accompanied, as it generally is, by the right to "repeal," one would suppose that the answer to this question was self-evident. Nonetheless, there are a number of judicial dicta to the effect that this power is not without limit, that it must be exercised reasonably and in good faith, and that the alterations made must be consistent with the scope and object of the grant.
Quite different is it with the distinction pointed out in the cases between the franchises and privileges that a corporation derives from its charter and the rights of property and contract that accrue to it in the course of its existence. Even the outright repeal of the former does not wipe out the latter or cause them to escheat to the State. The primary heirs of the defunct organization are its creditors, but whatever of value remains after their valid claims are met goes to the former shareholders.
And of course the same principle is equally applicable to the exercise by the State of its police powers. Thus, in what was perhaps the leading case before the Civil War, the Supreme Court of Vermont held that the legislature of that State had the right, in furtherance of the public safety, to require chartered companies operating railways to fence in their tracks and provide cattle guards. In a matter of this nature, said the court, corporations are on a level with individuals engaged in the same business, unless, from their charter, they can prove the contrary.
The leading case was that of the Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge,
The Court was in fact making new law, because it was looking at things from a new point of view. This was the period when judicial recognition of the Police Power began to take on a doctrinal character. It was also the period when the railroad business was just beginning.
Chief Justice Taney's opinion evinces the influence of both these developments. The power of the State to provide for its own internal happiness and prosperity was not, he asserted, to be pared away by mere legal intendments, nor was its ability to avail itself of the lights of modern science to be frustrated by obsolete interests such as those of the old turnpike companies, the charter privileges of which, he apprehended, might easily become a bar to the development of transportation along new lines.
The rule of strict construction has been reiterated by the Court many times. In the Court's opinion in Blair v. City of Chicago,
An excellent illustration of the operation of the rule in relation to tax exemptions was furnished by the derivative doctrine that an immunity of this character must be deemed as intended solely for the benefit of the corporation receiving it and hence, in the absence of express permission by the State, may not be passed on to a successor.
Furthermore, an exemption from taxation is to be strictly construed even in the hands of one clearly entitled to it. So the exemption conferred by its charter on a railway company was held not to extend to branch roads constructed by it under a later statute.
The Supreme Court first applied similar doctrine in 1848 in a case involving a grant of exclusive right to construct a bridge at a specified locality. Sustaining the right of the State of Vermont to make a new grant to a competing company, the Court held that the obligation of the earlier exclusive grant was sufficiently recognized in making just compensation for it; and that corporate franchises, like all other forms of property, are subject to the overruling power of eminent domain.
The subordination of all charter rights and privileges to the power of eminent domain has been maintained by the Court ever since; not even an explicit agreement by the State to forego the exercise of the power will avail against it.
On the other hand, repeated endeavors to subject tax exemptions to the doctrine of inalienability, though at times supported by powerful minorities on the Bench, have failed.
The leading case involving the police power is Stone v. Mississippi.
The Court shortly afterward applied the same reasoning in a case in which was challenged the right of Louisiana to invade the exclusive privilege of a corporation engaged in the slaughter of cattle in New Orleans by granting another company the right to engage in the same business. Although the State did not offer to compensate the older company for the lost monopoly, its action was sustained on the ground that it had been taken in the interest of the public health.
Later decisions, nonetheless, apply the principle of inalienability broadly. To quote from one: "It is settled that neither the 'contract' clause nor the 'due process' clause has the effect of overriding the power to the State to establish all regulations that are reasonably necessary to secure the health, safety, good order, comfort, or general welfare of the community; that this power can neither be abdicated nor bargained away, and is inalienable even by express grant; and all contract and property rights are held subject to its fair exercise."
The question of the nature and source of the obligation of a contract, which went by default in Fletcher v. Peck and the Dartmouth College case, with such vastly important consequences, had eventually to be met and answered by the Court in connection with private contracts. The first case involving such a contract to reach the Supreme Court was Sturges v. Crowninshield,
These obscurities were finally cleared up for most cases in Ogden v. Saunders,
For the first and only time, a majority of the Court abandoned the Chief Justice's leadership. Speaking by Justice Washington, it held that the obligation of private contracts is derived from the municipal law-state statutes and judicial decisions-and that the inhibition of Article I, § 10, is confined to legislative acts made after the contracts affected by them, subject to the following exception. By a curiously complicated line of reasoning, it was also held in the same case that when the creditor is a nonresident, then a State by an insolvency law may not alter the former's rights under a contract, albeit one of later date.
With the proposition established that the obligation of a private contract comes from the municipal law in existence when the contract is made, a further question presents itself, namely, what part of the municipal law is referred to? No doubt, the law which determines the validity of the contract itself is a part of such law. Also part of such law is the law which interprets the terms used in the contract, or which supplies certain terms when others are used, as for instance, constitutional provisions or statutes which determine what is "legal tender" for the payment of debts, or judicial decisions which construe the term "for value received" as used in a promissory note, and so on. In short, any law which at the time of the making of a contract goes to measure the rights and duties of the parties to it in relation to each other enters into its obligation.
This rule was first definitely announced in 1843 in the case of Bronson v. Kinzie.
But the rule illustrated by these cases does not signify that a State may make no changes in its remedial or procedural law that affect existing contracts. "Provided," the Court has said, "a substantial or efficacious remedy remains or is given, by means of which a party can enforce his rights under the contract, the Legislature may modify or change existing remedies or prescribe new modes of procedure."
There is one class of cases resulting from the doctrine that the law of remedy constitutes a part of the obligation of a contract to which a special word is due. This comprises cases in which the contracts involved were municipal bonds. While a city is from one point of view but an emanation from the government's sovereignty and an agent thereof, when it borrows money it is held to be acting in a corporate or private capacity and so to be suable on its contracts. Furthermore, as was held in the leading case of United States ex rel. Von Hoffman v. Quincy,
Would the legislature then be powerless to prohibit them? The answer returned, of course, was no.
The prevailing doctrine was stated by the Supreme Court of the United States in the following words: "It is the settled law of this court that the interdiction of statutes impairing the obligation of contracts does not prevent the State from exercising such powers as are vested in it for the promotion of the common weal, or are necessary for the general good of the public, though contracts previously entered into between individuals may thereby be affected.... In other words, that parties by entering into contracts may not estop the legislature from enacting laws intended for the public good."
So, in an early case, we find a state recording act upheld as applying to deeds dated before the passage of the act.
But the most striking exertions of the police power touching private contracts, as well as other private interests within recent years, have been evoked by war and economic depression. Thus, in World War I, the State of New York enacted a statute which, declaring that a public emergency existed, forbade the enforcement of covenants for the surrender of the possession of premises on the expiration of leases, and wholly deprived for a period owners of dwellings, including apartment and tenement houses, within the City of New York and contiguous counties, of possessory remedies for the eviction from their premises of tenants in possession when the law took effect, providing the latter were able and willing to pay a reasonable rent. In answer to objections leveled against this legislation on the basis of the obligation of contracts clause, the Court said: "But contracts are made subject to this exercise of the power of the State when otherwise justified, as we have held this to be."
Summing up the result of the cases above referred to, Chief Justice Hughes, speaking for the Court in Home Building & Loan Ass'n v. Blaisdell,
The act also left the mortgagor in possession during the period of extension, subject to the requirement that he pay a reasonable rental for the property as fixed by the court. Contemporaneously, however, less carefully drawn statutes from Missouri and Arkansas, acts which were not as considerate of creditor's rights, were set aside as violative of the contracts clause.
And meantime the Court had sustained legislation of the State of New York under which a mortgagee of real property was denied a deficiency judgment in a foreclosure suit where the state court found that the value of the property purchased by the mortgagee at the foreclosure sale was equal to the debt secured by the mortgage.
More important, the Court has been at pains most recently to reassert the vitality of the clause, although one may wonder whether application of the clause will be more than episodic.
"[T]he Contract Clause remains a part of our written Constitution."
Whether these two cases portend an active judicial review of economic regulatory activities, in contrast to the extreme deference shown such legislation under the due process and equal protection clauses, is problematical. Both cases contain language emphasizing the breadth of the police powers of government that may be used to further the public interest and admitting limited judicial scrutiny. Nevertheless, "[i]f the Contract Clause is to retain any meaning at all . . . it must be understood to impose some limits upon the power of a State to abridge existing contractual relationships, even in the exercise of its otherwise legitimate police power."
Clause 2. No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Control of the Congress.
Only articles imported from or exported to a foreign country, or "a place over which the Constitution has not extended its commands with respect to imports and their taxation," are comprehended by the terms "imports" and "exports."
A state law requiring importers to take out a license to sell imported goods amounts to an indirect tax on imports and hence is unconstitutional.
Overruling a line of prior decisions which it thought misinterpreted the language of Brown v. Maryland, the Court now holds that the clause does not prevent a State from levying a nondiscriminatory, ad valorem property tax upon goods that are no longer in import transit.
Inspection laws "are confined to such particulars as, in the estimation of the legislature and according to the customs of trade, are deemed necessary to fit the inspected article for the market, by giving the purchaser public assurance that the article is in that condition, and of that quality, which makes it merchantable and fit for use or consumption."
Clause 3. No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.
The prohibition against tonnage duties embraces all taxes and duties, regardless of their name or form, whether measured by the tonnage of the vessel or not, which are in effect charges for the privilege of entering, trading in, or lying in a port.
This provision contemplates the use of the State's military power to put down an armed insurrection too strong to be controlled by civil authority,
Except for the single limitation that the consent of Congress must be obtained, the original inherent sovereign rights of the States to make compacts with each other was not surrendered under the Constitution.
The Framers of the Constitution went further. By the first clause of this section they laid down an unqualified prohibition against "any treaty, alliance or confederation," and by the third clause they required the consent of Congress for "any agreement or compact." The significance of this distinction was pointed out by Chief Justice Taney in Holmes v. Jennison.
"If there is a verbal understanding, to which both parties have assented, and upon which both are acting, it is an 'agreement.' And the use of all of these terms, 'treaty,' 'agreement,' 'compact,' show that it was the intention of the framers of the Constitution to use the broadest and most comprehensive terms; and that they anxiously desired to cut off all connection or communication between a State and a foreign power; and we shall fail to execute that evident intention, unless we give to the word 'agreement' its most extended signification; and so apply it as to prohibit every agreement, written or verbal, formal or informal, positive or implied, by the mutual understanding of the parties."
For many years after the Constitution was adopted, boundary disputes continued to predominate as the subject matter of agreements among the States. Since the turn of the twentieth century, however, the interstate compact has been used to an increasing extent as an instrument for state cooperation in carrying out affirmative programs for solving common problems.
The Constitution makes no provision with regard to the time when the consent of Congress shall be given or the mode or form by which it shall be signified.
It is competent for a railroad corporation organized under the laws of one State, when authorized so to do by the consent of the State which created it, to accept authority from another State to extend its railroad into such State and to receive a grant of powers to own and control, by lease or purchase, railroads therein and to subject itself to such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the second State. Such legislation on the part of two or more States is not, in the absence of inhibitory legislation by Congress, regarded as within the constitutional prohibition of agreements or compacts between States.
Whenever, by the agreement of the States concerned and the consent of Congress, an interstate compact comes into operation, it has the same effect as a treaty between sovereign powers. Boundaries established by such compacts become binding upon all citizens of the signatory States and are conclusive as to their rights.
Madison explained the clause by allusion to what had occurred "in the internal administration of the States" in the years preceding the Constitutional Convention, in regard to private debts. Violations of contracts had become familiar in the form of depreciated paper made legal tender, of property substituted for money, of installment laws, and of the occlusions of the courts of justice. 3 M. FARRAND, THE RECORDS OF THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 548 (rev. ed. 1937); THE FEDERALIST, No. 44 (J. Cooke ed. 1961), 301- 302.
Likewise the State, in the public interest, may require a railroad to reestablish an abandoned station, even though the railroad commission had previously authorized its abandonment on condition that another station be established elsewhere, a condition which had been complied with. Railroad Co. v. Hamersley, 104 U.S. 1 (1881). It may impose upon a railroad liability for fire communicated by its locomotives, even though the State had previously authorized the company to use said type of locomotive power, St. Louis & S. F. Ry. v. Mathews, 165 U.S. 1 , 5 (1897), and it may penalize the failure to cut drains through embankments so as to prevent flooding of adjacent lands. Chicago & Alton R.R. v. Tranbarger, 238 U.S. 67 (1915).