U.S. Supreme Court


253 U.S. 350 (1920)

[National Prohibition Cases]

Mr. Justice VAN DEVANTER announced the conclusions of the Court.

Power to amend the Constitution was reserved by article 5, which reads:

The text of the Eighteenth Amendment, proposed by Congress in 1917 and proclaimed as ratified in 1919, is as follows: We here are concerned with seven cases involving the validity of that amendment and of certain general features of the National Prohibition Law, known as the Volstead Act, which was adopted to enforce the amendment. The relief sought in each case is an injunction against the execution of that act.... The cases have been elaborately argued at the bar and in printed briefs; and the arguments have been attentively considered, with the result that we reach and announce the following conclusions on the questions involved:

1. The adoption by both houses of Congress, each by a two-thirds vote, of a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution sufficiently shows that the proposal was deemed necessary by all who voted for it. An express declaration that they regarded it as necessary is not essential. None of the resolutions whereby prior amendments were proposed contained such a declaration.

2. The two-thirds vote in each house which is required in proposing an amendment is a vote of two-thirds of the members present-assuming the presence of a quorum-and not a vote of two-thirds of the entire membership, present and absent.

3. The referendum provisions of state Constitutions and statutes cannot be applied, consistently with the Constitution of the United States, in the ratification or rejection of amendments to it.

4. The prohibition of the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation and exportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes, as embodied in the Eighteenth Amendment, is within the power to amend reserved by article 5 of the Constitution.

5. That amendment, by lawful proposal and ratification, has become a part of the Constitution, and must be respected and given effect the same as other provisions of that instrument.

6. The first section of the amendment-the one embodying the prohibition-is operative throughout the entire territorial limits of the United States, binds all legislative bodies, courts, public officers and individuals within those limits, and of its own force invalidates every legislative act, whether by Congress, by a state Legislature, or by a territorial assembly, which authorizes or sanctions what the section prohibits.

7. The second section of the amendment-the one declaring 'The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation'-does not enable Congress or the several states to defeat or thwart the prohibition, but only to enforce it by appropriate means.

8. The words 'concurrent power,' in that section, do not mean joint power, or require that legislation thereunder by Congress, to be effective, shall be approved or sanctioned by the several states or any of them; nor do they mean that the power to enforce is divided between Congress and the several states along the lines which separate or distinguish foreign and interstate commerce from intrastate affairs.

9. The power confided to Congress by that section, while not exclusive, is territorially coextensive with the prohibition of the first section, embraces manufacture and other intrastate transactions as well as importation, exportation and interstate traffic, and is in no wise dependent on or affected by action or inaction on the part of the several states or any of them.

10. That power may be exerted against the disposal for beverage purposes of liquors manufactured before the amendment became effective just as it may be against subsequent manufacture for those purposes. In either case it is a constitutional mandate or prohibition that is being enforced.

11. While recognizing that there are limits beyond which Congress cannot go in treating beverages as within its power of enforcement, we think those limits are not transcended by the provision of the Volstead Act (title 2, 1), wherein liquors containing as much as one-half of 1 percent. of alcohol by volume and fit for use for beverage purposes are treated as within that power....

Mr. Chief Justice WHITE concurring.

I profoundly regret that in a case of this magnitude, affecting as it does an amendment to the Constitution dealing with the powers and duties of the national and state governments, and intimately concerning the welfare of the whole people, the court has deemed it proper to state only ultimate conclusions without an exposition of the reasoning by which they have been reached.

I appreciate the difficulties which a solution of the cases involve and the solicitude with which the court has approached them, but it seems to my mind that the greater the perplexities the greater the duty devolving upon me to express the reasons which have led me to the conclusion that the amendment accomplishes and was intended to accomplish the purposes now attributed to it in the propositions concerning that subject which the court has just announced and in which I concur. Primarily in doing this I notice various contentions made concerning the proper construction of the provisions of the amendment which I have been unable to accept, in order that by contrast they may add cogency to the statement of the understanding I have of the amendment....

1. It is contended that the result of these provisions is to require concurrent action of Congress and the states in enforcing the prohibition of the first section and hence that in the absence of such concurrent action by Congress and the states no enforcing legislation can exist, and therefore until this takes place the prohibition of the first section is a dead letter. But in view of the manifest purpose of the first section to apply and make efficacious the prohibition, and of the second to deal with the methods of carrying out that purpose, I cannot accept this interpretation, since it would result simply in declaring that the provisions of the second section, avowedly enacted to provide means for carrying out the first, must be so interpreted as to practically nullify the first.

2. It is said, conceding that the concurrent power given to Congress and to the states does not as a prerequisite exact the concurrent action of both, it nevertheless contemplates the possibility of action by Congress and by the states and makes each action effective, but as under the Constitution the authority of Congress in enforcing the Constitution is paramount, when state legislation and congressional action conflict the state legislation yields to the action of Congress as controlling. But as the power of both Congress and the states in this instance is given by the Constitution in one and the same provision, I again find myself unable to accept the view urged because it ostensibly accepts the constitutional mandate as to the concurrence of the two powers and proceeds immediately by way of interpretation to destroy it by making one paramount over the other.

3. The proposition is that the concurrent powers conferred upon Congress and the states are not subject to conflict because their exertion is authorized within different areas, that is, by Congress within the field of federal authority, and by the states within the sphere of state power, hence leaving the states free within their jurisdiction to determine separately for themselves what, within reasonable limits, is an intoxicating liquor, and to Congress the same right within the sphere of its jurisdiction. But the unsoundness of this more plausible contention seems to me at once exposed by directing attention to the fact that in a case where no state legislation was enacted there would be no prohibition, thus again frustrating the first section by a construction affixed to the second. It is no answer to suggest that a regulation by Congress would in such event be operative in such a state, since the basis of the distinction upon which the argument rests is that the concurrent power conferred upon Congress is confined to the area of its jurisdiction and therefore is not operative within a state.

Comprehensively looking at all these contentions, the confusion and contradiction to which they lead, serve in my judgment to make it certain that it cannot possibly be that Congress and the states entered into the great and important business of amending the Constitution in a matter so vitally concerning all the people solely in order to render governmental action impossible, or, if possible, to so define and limit it as to cause it to be productive of no results and to frustrate the obvious intent and general purpose contemplated. It is true indeed that the mere words of the second section tend to these results, but if they be read in the light of the cardinal rule which compels a consideration of the context in view of the situation and the subject with which the amendment dealt and the purpose which it was intended to accomplish, the confusion will be seen to be only apparent.

In the first place, it is indisputable, as I have stated, that the first section imposes a general prohibition which it was the purpose to make universally and uniformly operative and efficacious. In the second place, as the prohibition did not define the intoxicating beverages which it prohibited, in the absence of anything to the contrary, it clearly, from the very fact of its adoption, cast upon Congress the duty, not only of defining the prohibited beverages, but also of enacting such regulations and sanctions as were essential to make them operative when defined. In the third place, when the second section is considered with these truths in mind it becomes clear that it simply manifests a like purpose to adjust, as far as possible, the exercise of the new powers cast upon Congress by the amendment to the dual system of government existing under the Constitution. In other words, dealing with the new prohibition created by the Constitution, operating throughout the length and breadth of the United States, without reference to state lines or the distinctions between state and federal power, and contemplating the exercise by Congress of the duty cast upon it to make the prohibition efficacious, it was sought by the second section to unite national and state administrative agencies in giving effect to the amendment and the legislation of Congress enacted to make it completely operative....

Limiting the concurrent power to enforce given by the second section to the purposes which I have attributed to it, that is, to the subjects appropriate to execute the amendment as defined and sanctioned by Congress, I assume that it will not be denied that the effect of the grant of authority was to confer upon both Congress and the states power to do things which otherwise there would be no right to do. This being true, I submit that no reason exists for saying that a grant of concurrent power to Congress and the states to give effect to, that is, to carry out or enforce, the amendment as defined and sanctioned by Congress, should be interpreted to deprive Congress of the power to create, by definition and sanction, an enforceable amendment.

Mr. Justice McKENNA, dissenting.

This case is concerned with the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, its validity and construction.

The court in applying it has dismissed certain of the bills, reversed the decree in one, and affirmed the decrees in four others. I am unable to agree with the judgment reversing No. 794 and affirming Nos. 752, 696, 788, and 837.

I am, however, at a loss how or to what extent to express the grounds for this action. The court declares conclusions only, without giving any reasons for them. The instance may be wise-establishing a precedent now, hereafter wisely to be imitated. It will undoubtedly decrease the literature of the court if it does not increase its lucidity. However, reasons for the conclusions have been omitted, and my comment upon them may come from a misunderstanding of them, their present import and ultimate purpose and force.

There are, however, clear declarations that the Eighteenth Amendment is part of the Constitution of the United States, made so in observance of the prescribed constitutional procedure, and has become part of the Constitution of the United States, to be respected and given effect like other provisions of that instrument. With these conclusions I agree....

Conclusions 8 and 9, as I view them, are complements of each other, and express, with a certain verbal detail, the power of Congress and the states over the liquor traffic, using the word in its comprehensive sense as including the production of liquor, its transportation within the states, its exportation from them, and its importation into them. In a word, give power over the liquor business from producer to consumer, prescribe the quality of latter's beverage. Certain determining elements are expressed. It is said that the words 'concurrent power' of section 2 do not mean joint power in Congress and the states, nor the approval by the states of congressional legislation, nor its dependency upon state action or inaction.

I cannot confidently measure the force of the declarations or the deductions that are, or can be made from them. They seem to be regarded as sufficient to impel the conclusion that the Volstead Act is legal legislation and operative throughout the United States. But are there no opposing considerations, no conditions upon its operation?....

From these premises the deduction seems inevitable that there must be united action between the states and Congress, or, at any rate, concordant and harmonious action; and will not such action promote better the purpose of the amendment-will it not bring to the enforcement of prohibition, the power of the states and the power of Congress, make all the instrumentalities of the states, its courts and officers, agencies of the enforcement, as well as the instrumentalities of the United States, its court and officers, agencies of the enforcement? Will it not bring to the states as well, or preserve to them, a partial autonomy, satisfying, if you will, their prejudices, or better say, their predilections; and it is not too much to say that our dual system of government is based upon them. And this predilection for self-government the Eighteenth Amendment regards and respects, and by doing so sacrifices nothing of, the policy of prohibition.

It is, however, urged that to require such concurrence is to practically nullify the prohibition of the amendment, for without legislation its prohibition would be ineffectual, and that it is impossible to secure the concurrence of Congress and the states in legislation. I cannot assent to the propositions. The conviction of the evils of intemperance-the eager and ardent sentiment that impelled the amendment, will impel its execution through Congress and the states. It may not be in such legislation as the Volstead Act with its 1/2 of 1 per cent. of alcohol or in such legislation as some of the states have enacted with their 2.75 per cent. of alcohol, but it will be in a law that will be prohibitive of intoxicating liquor for beverage purposes. It may require a little time to achieve, it may require some adjustments, but of its ultimate achievement there can be no doubt....

I am, I think, therefore, justified in my dissent.

Mr. Justice CLARKE (dissenting).

I concur in the first seven paragraphs and in the tenth paragraph of the announced 'Conclusions' of the Court, but I dissent from the remaining three paragraphs.

The eighth, ninth and eleventh paragraphs, taken together, in effect, declare the Volstead Act (41 Stat. 305) to be the supreme law of the land- paramount to any state law with which it may conflict in any respect.

Such a result, in my judgment, can be arrived at only by reading out of the second section of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution the word 'concurrent,' as it is used in the grant to Congress and the several states of 'concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.' This important word, which the record of Congress shows was introduced, with utmost deliberation, to give accurate expression to a very definite purpose, can be read out of the Constitution only by violating the sound and wise rule of constitutional construction early announced and often applied by this Court-that in expounding the Constitution of the United States no word in it can be rejected as superfluous or unmeaning, but effect must be given to every word to the extent that this is reasonably possible....

The authoritative dictionaries, general and law, and the decided cases, agree, that 'concurrent' means 'joint and equal authority,' 'running together, having the same authority,' and therefore the grant of concurrent power to the Congress and the states should give to each equal, the same, authority to enforce the Amendment by appropriate legislation. But the conclusions of the Court from which I dissent, by rendering the Volstead Act of Congress paramount to state laws, necessarily deprive the states of all power to enact legislation in conflict with it, and construe the Amendment precisely as if the word 'concurrent' were not in it....

Under this construction, which I think should be given the Amendment, there would be large scope also for its operation even in states which might refuse to concur in congressional legislation for its enforcement. In my judgment the law in such a state would be as if no special grant of concurrent power for the enforcement of the first section had been made in the second section, but, nevertheless, the first section, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation or exportation, of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes, would be the supreme law of the land within the nonconcurring states and they would be powerless to license, tax, or otherwise recognize as lawful anything violating that section, so that any state law in form attempting such recognition would be unconstitutional and void. Congress would have full power under the interstate commerce clause, and it would be its duty, to prevent the movement of such liquor for beverage purposes into or out of such a state and the plenary police power over the subject, so firmly established in the states before the Eighteenth Amendment was adopted, would continue for use in the restricted field which the first section of the Amendment leaves unoccupied-and the presumption must always be indulged that a state will observe and not defy the requirements of the national Constitution.

Doubtless such a construction as I am proposing would not satisfy the views of extreme advocates of prohibition or of its opponents, but in my judgment it is required by the salutary rule of constitutional construction referred to, the importance of which cannot be overstated. It is intended to prevent courts from rewriting the Constitution in a form in which judges think it should have been written insta d of giving effect to the language actually used in it, and very certainly departures from it will return to plague the authors of them. It does not require the eye of a seer to see contention at the bar of this Court against liberal, paramount, congressional definition of intoxicating liquors as strenuous and determined as that which we have witnessed over the strict definition of the Volstead Act.

With respect to the eleventh conclusion of the Court, it is enough to say that it approves as valid a definition of liquor as intoxicating which is expressly admitted not to be intoxicating in each of the cases in which it is considered. This is deemed warranted, I suppose, as legislation appropriate to the enforcement of the first section and precedent is found for it in prohibition legislation by states. But I cannot agree that the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, etc., of intoxicating liquors in the first section of the Eighteenth Amendment gives that plenary power over the subject which the Legislatures of the states derive from the people or which may be derived from the war powers of the Constitution. Believing, as I do, that the scope of the first section cannot constitutionally be enlarged by the language contained in the second section, I dissent from this conclusion of the Court.

In the Slaughterhouse Cases, 16 Wall 36, and other cases, this Court was urged to give a construction to the Fourteenth Amendment which would have radically changed the whole constitutional theory of the relations of our state and federal governments by transferring to the general government that police power, through the exercise of which the people of the various states theretofore regulated their local affairs in conformity with the widely differing standards of life, of conduct and of duty which must necessarily prevail in a country of so great extent as ours, with its varieties of climate, of industry and of habits of the people. But this Court, resisting the pressure of the passing hour, maintained the integrity of state control over local affairs to the extent that it had not been deliberately and clearly surrendered to the general government, in a number of decisions which came to command the confidence even of the generation active when they were rendered and which have been regarded by our succeeding generation as sound and wise and highly fortunate for our country.

The cases now before us seem to me to again present questions of like character to, and of not less importance than, those which were presented in those great cases, and I regret profoundly that I cannot share in the disposition which the majority of my Associates think should be made of them.

Exploring Constitutional Conflicts