Swift & Company v. United States 196 U.S. 375 (1905)

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SWIFT & COMPANY v. UNITED STATES 196 U.S. 375 (1905)

Justice oliver wendell holmes's opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court in Swift announced the stream of commerce doctrine, fundamental to constitutional commerce clause adjudication ever since.

In 1902 Attorney General philander c. knox ordered that an equity complaint be filed against the Beef Trust, the five largest meat-packing concerns in the country. The complaint alleged conspiracy and combination in restraint of interstate trade, suppression of competition, and price-fixing, all in violation of the sherman antitrust act. In 1903 federal district court judge peter s. grosscup issued a perpetual injunction against the packers. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the packers, though admitting the truth of the government allegations, contended that they were not involved in interstate commerce. The entire transaction between the packers and those who purchased meat from them had occurred completely within the state where the packers slaughtered and prepared their meat. The sale had been consumated in-state and thus only intrastate commerce was involved. Knox's successor, william h. moody, asserted that the restraint of trade directly affected interstate commerce even if no interstate acts were involved. Armed with the packers' admissions, Moody stressed the unity of the transactions, arguing that the operation had to be viewed as a whole.

The Court accepted Moody's view. The trust's " effect upon commerce is not accidental, secondary, remote, or merely probable," Holmes declared, as he revised the Court's view of interstate commerce, affecting decisions for decades to come: "Commerce among the states is not a technical legal conception, but a practical one, drawn from the course of the business." Livestock moving from the range to the retailer, "with the only interruption necessary to find a purchaser at the stock yards," created "a current of commerce among the states, and the purchase of cattle is a part and incident of such commerce." Thus a local activity might be seen as part of interstate commerce. This stream of commerce doctrine fundamentally redirected the Court's examination of commerce clause questions and brought the Court face-to-face with economic reality, modifying the doctrinal effect of united states v. e. c. knight company (1895).

David Gordon


Gordon, David 1983 The Beef Trust: Antitrust Law and the Meat Packing Industry, 1902–1922. Ph.D. diss., Claremont Graduate School.