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Frothingham v. Mellon Massachusetts v. Mellon 262 U.S. 447 (1923)


In the sheppard-towner maternity act of 1921, a predecessor of modern federal grants-in-aid, Congress authorized federal funding of state programs "to reduce maternal and infant mortality." These companion cases involved suits to halt federal expenditures under the act, challenging it as a deprivation of property without due process of law and a violation of the tenth amendment. Justice george sutherland, for a unanimous Supreme Court, dismissed the Massachusetts case for failing to present a justiciable controversy. The state's suit in its own behalf presented a political question calling on the Court to adjudicate "abstract questions of political power," not rights of property or even "quasi-sovereign rights actually invaded or threatened." The state was under no obligation to accept federal monies. The state also lacked standing to represent its citizens, who were also citizens of the United States.

Frothingham's due process argument relied on the premise that spending under the act would increase her tax liability. Sutherland concluded that she, too, lacked standing to sue. Any personal interest in federal tax monies "is comparatively minute and indeterminable; and the effect upon future taxation, of any payment out of the funds, so remote, fluctuating and uncertain, that no basis is afforded for an appeal." Because Frothingham could not demonstrate direct injury, her suit must fail. An obiter dictum implying the constitutionality of grants-in-aid was the Court's only pronouncement on such programs until approved in steward machine company v. davis (1937).

David Gordon

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