American Constitutional Law: Introductory Essays & Selected Cases

By Alpheus Thomas Mason; William M. Beaney | Go to book overview

Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States

295 U.S. 495, 55 S.Ct. 837, 79 L.Ed. 1570 ( 1935)

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, passed in a period of serious economic depression, marked an attempt by Congress and the President to promote industry-wide agreements on wages, hours, and trade practices in an effort to prevent cut-throat competition and restore economic stability. These agreements took the form of codes, proposed by trade associations, and approved by the President in executive orders. The only standards for the exercise of executive discretion were that trade associations should be truly representative, with no inequitable restrictions on membership, and that the codes proposed should not tend to promote monopolies. In the Schechter case a New York poultry dealer challenged his conviction for violating provisions of the "Live Poultry Code" for New York City and vicinity -- specifically, the wages and hours and the "straight killing" requirements (which compelled purchasers to accept whichever bird in a coop was first seized). The Circuit Court of Appeals sustained the conviction only as to the "straight killing" requirement, and both Schechter and the government sought review on certiorari.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court....

First. Two preliminary points are stressed by the Government with respect to the appropriate approach to the important questions presented. We are told that the provision of the statute authorizing the adoption of codes must be viewed in the light of the grave national crisis with which Congress was confronted. Undoubtedly, the conditions to which power is addressed are always to be considered when the exercise of power is challenged. Extraordinary conditions may call for extraordinary remedies. But the argument necessarily stops short of an attempt to justify action which lies outside the sphere of constitutional authority. Extraordinary conditions do not create or enlarge constitutional power. The Constitution established a national government with powers deemed to be adequate, as they have proved to be both in war and peace, but these powers of the national government are limited by the constitutional grants. Those who act under these grants are not at liberty to transcend the imposed limits because they believe that more or different power is necessary. Such assertions of extra-constitutional authority were anticipated and precluded by the explicit terms of the Tenth Amendment, -- "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The further point is urged that the national crisis demanded a broad and intensive cooperative effort by those engaged in trade and industry, and that

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