What Is the Commerce Clause?


Quick Answer

The Commerce Clause grants Congress the power to regulate foreign trade, commerce with Native American tribes and also between several states. It is outlined by Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution.

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Full Answer

The precise implications of the Commerce Clause for state regulation are unclear, and at least four different interpretations have been suggested.

Perhaps the most literal interpretation suggests that the Commerce Clause grants Congress, and Congress alone, the power to regulate commerce. In other words, individual states have no power to regulate trade between themselves.

A second interpretation proposes that Congress is granted such power in addition to, rather than instead of, the states themselves. In such a scenario, state regulation may be preempted by federal law.

Alternatively, the Commerce Clause is considered by some to grant Congress and states entirely separate regulatory zones, leaving it to the courts to determine whether one has encroached on the other's.

A fourth interpretation is more moderate in suggesting that the Commerce Clause removes some state regulatory powers, but that states retain powers in other ways. It is this interpretation that has been adopted by the courts.

An example of this fourth interpretation in practice is the case of Baldwin vs. G. A. F. Seelig (1935), in which a New York milk trader was on trial for selling milk sourced from outside the state. This was illegal under New York State law, ostensibly to avoid price competition driving down the quality of milk. However, the court overruled the state law as protectionism.

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