Revitalizing the Forgotten Uniformity Constraint on the Commerce Power

Article — Volume 91, Issue 2

91 Va. L. Rev. 249
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Employing a straightforward textual reading of the Commerce Clause, which, unlike other constitutional clauses, does not expressly mandate uniform regulation, the Supreme Court has recently declared that Congress is free to enact commercial regulations that apply in some states, but not in others, or that explicitly treat some states differently than others. This Article seeks to call that conclusion into question, and in the course of doing so, to explore the proper roles of history and text in constitutional decisionmaking.

From a historical perspective, the desire for uniformity was both the precipitating factor in the creation of the federal commerce power and a fundamental limitation upon that power. Fearing that Congress would use the commerce power as a means of discriminating in favor of some states at the expense of others, the Constitutional Convention ratified a provision intended to preclude Congress from enacting nonuniform regulations of commerce. For purely stylistic reasons, that provision was ultimately broken into two different clauses: the Port Preference Clause and the Uniformity Clause, but the framers understood those clauses to be one in purpose, and to have the combined effect of categorically prohibiting the nonuniform exercise of the commerce power. 

Because the framers narrowly conceived the commerce power as extending only to the imposition of excises and duties and the regulation of navigation and shipping, their decision to divide the mandate against the nonuniform regulation of commerce into two, more narrowly drawn clauses seemed inconsequential. The Uniformity Clause, which requires all excises and duties to be uniform throughout the United States, and the Port Preference Clause, which precludes Congress from enacting regulations of navigation or shipping that favor the ports of one state over those of another, were sufficient in their day to fully protect against the nonuniform exercise of the commerce power. In today’s world, however—a world in which the commerce power has achieved a drastically broader ambit—if we continue to read the Uniformity and Port Preference Clauses narrowly and literally, and if we fail to imply a general uniformity constraint on the commerce power, then we fatally undermine the fundamental constitutional principle that pervaded the Constitutional Convention that Congress must not be permitted to use the commerce power to favor some states at the expense of others. This Article contends that we should interpret the Constitution in a manner that preserves this fundamental precept and ensures that it remains relevant and vital in the twenty-first century and beyond.

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  Volume 91 / Issue 2  

Revitalizing the Forgotten Uniformity Constraint on the Commerce Power

By Thomas B. Colby
91 Va. L. Rev. 249

What is Textualism?

By Caleb Nelson
91 Va. L. Rev. 347

Textualism and Legislative Intent

By John F. Manning
91 Va. L. Rev. 419

A Response to Professor Manning

By Caleb Nelson
91 Va. L. Rev. 451