The Hughes Court (1930–41)

Commerce and Labor

In what decision did the Hughes Court uphold a state law fixing milk prices?

The Hughes Court ruled 5–4 in Nebbia v. People of State of New York (1934) that a New York law regulating milk prices did not violate the Due Process Clause. Leo Nebbia, a Rochester grocery store owner, challenged a state law that required him to charge nine cents for a quart of milk. Nebbia was charged with violating the law by selling the material cheaper in his store, as he had sold two quarts of milk and a loaf of bread for 18 cents. The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Owen Roberts, determined that the measure was not arbitrary or unreasonable. “The Constitution does not guarantee the unrestricted privilege to engage in a business or to conduct it as one pleases,” Roberts wrote. “So far as the requirement of due process is concerned, and in the absence of other constitutional restriction, a state is free to adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare, and to enforce that policy by legislation adopted to its purpose.”

The Four Horsemen—Pierce Butler, Willis Van Devanter, George Sutherland, and James McReynolds—dissented in an opinion written by McReynolds. These justices believed that the legislature had exceeded its constitutional authority in fixing prices for private businesses. “This is not regulation, but management control, dictation—it amounts to the deprivation of the fundamental right which one has to conduct his own affairs honestly and along customary lines,” he wrote.


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