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Shreveport Doctrine


In the early twentieth century, the Supreme Court employed several doctrines to sustain federal regulation of intrastate commerce. Among these, the Shreveport doctrine enjoyed a long tenure in the service of the commerce clause. Since its elaboration, the Court has approved its use as a means of reaching a variety of activities, including professional football, minimum wages, crop control, and racial discrimination.

First announced in houston, east west texas railway v. united states—the Shreveport Rate Case—(1914), the doctrine permitted congressional regulation of purely local freight rates when, unmodified, they would have impeded interstate commerce. The doctrine drew sustenance from the Court's distinction between direct and indirect effects on commerce in united states v. e. c. knight company (1895) but reflected a new economic pragmatism. The Court recognized the integrated nature of the railroad system before it in the Shreveport Rate Case. It asserted that the commerce power "necessarily embraces the right to control … [intrastate] operations in all matters having such a close and substantial relation to interstate traffic that the control is essential or appropriate" to maintain a free flow of interstate commerce. The Court applied the doctrine throughout the 1920s in railroad cases such as daytongoose creek railway v. united states (1924).

The judicial "revolution" of 1937 enhanced the use of the Shreveport doctrine. Earlier, the Court had struck down federal regulation in carter v. carter coal company (1936) as an attempt to control activities only indirectly affecting interstate commerce, but it soon held that the wagner (national labor relations) act legitimately regulated production (heretofore considered local), reiterating the "close and substantial relation" test of the Shreveport doctrine. (See nlrb v. jones & laughlin steel corp. , 1937.)

The doctrine continued to grow in the 1940s. After several predictable decisions allowing federal regulation of intrastate milk prices (united states v. wrightwood dairy, 1942) by subjecting to federal control a local wheat crop "where no part of the product is intended for interstate commerce or intermingled with the subjects thereof." The Court declared that even local activity that "may not be regarded as commerce … may still … be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce … irrespective of whether such effect is what might at some earlier time have been defined as 'direct' or 'indirect'." This interpretation invited increasing use of the doctrine in antitrust cases, particularly under the sherman antitrust act, where, along with the stream of commerce doctrine, it became a test of the law's applicability.

Congress and the Supreme Court continued this expansion in the 1960s. The civil rights act of 1964, based on the commerce clause, prohibits racial discrimination in public accommodations. The Court sustained application of the act to a local restaurant because "the absence of direct evidence connecting discriminatory restaurant service with the flow of interstate food…isnot…a crucial matter." (See katzenbach v. mcclung, 1964; Daniel v. Paul, 1969.) Criminal activity, too, fell within the doctrine's scope when the Court found ties between local loan-sharking and interstate commerce in perez v. united states (1971). The Court also included firearms in the doctrine's reach, sustaining a conviction under the omnibus crime control and safe streets act for illegal possession, despite a minimal demonstration of the requisite connection with commerce (Scarborough v. United States, 1977).

The Shreveport doctrine helped bring about the demise of dual federalism. Because of the Justices' willingness to accede to congressional determinations, the Court's application of the doctrine has consistently followed its statement in Board of Trade v. Olsen (1923) that "this court will certainly not substitute its judgment for that of Congress in such a matter unless the relation of the subject to interstate commerce, and its effect upon it, are clearly nonexistent."

David Gordon

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