Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railway v. Illinois 118 U.S. 557 (1886)

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Tremendous growth in a national railroad network after the civil war led to increasingly scandalous and harmful abuses. State efforts to control the problems were generally ineffective until Munn v. Illinois (1877). In that case, Chief Justice morrison r. waite allowed state regulation of railroads where Congress had not yet acted, "even though it may indirectly affect" those outside the state. Illinois had attempted to curb one area of abuse by forbidding long haul-short haul discrimination. So pervasive was this evil that it would be outlawed later in the interstate commerce and mannelkins acts. The state sued the Wabash company to prevent it from charging more for shorter hauls; because significant portions of most long hauls lay outside Illinois, the issue lay in the constitutionality of a state regulation of interstate commerce.

A 6–3 Supreme Court struck down the Illinois statute, undercutting the decisions in the granger cases (1877) without impairing the doctrine of affectation with a public interest. Justice samuel f. miller looked to the commerce clause as securing a "freedom of commerce" across the country. The imposition, by individual states, of varying patterns of rates and regulations on interstate commerce was "oppressive" and rendered the commerce clause a "very feeble and almost useless provision." Miller then relied on the decision in cooley v. board of wardens of philadelphia (1851) to declare that such regulation was clearly national, not local, in character even though Congress had not yet acted. In so doing, he altered the thrust of the Cooley test by examining the impact of state regulation on the nation instead of on the subjects involved. Miller concluded that "it is not, and never has been, the deliberate opinion of a majority of this court that a statute of a state which attempts to regulate the fare and charges by railroad companies [affecting interstate commerce] is a valid law."

Justices Horace Gray, Joseph P. Bradley, and Chief Justice Waite dissented, contending that the Granger Cases should have ruled the decision here. Citing willson v. black bird creek marsh company (1829), Gray and his colleagues argued that "in the absence of congressional legislation to the contrary, [the railroads] are not only susceptible of state regulation, but properly amenable to it." They recited the litany of rights and powers granted the railroads by the state: "its being, its franchises, its powers, its road, its right to charge" all confirmed the state's right to regulate the road. The dissenters asserted that the Illinois statute affected interstate commerce only "incidentally" and not adversely. Subject to future congressional action, they would have affirmed the state action.

This decision effectively created a vacuum—Congress had not acted and the states were forbidden to act or even to control intrastate abuses. Together with an increasingly powerful reform movement, Wabash helped contribute to the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, creating the first national regulatory body.

David Gordon