Passenger Cases

Case Date: 06/07/2023

Smith v. Turner; Norris v. Boston, 48 U.S. 283 (1849),[1] were two similar cases, argued together before the United States Supreme Court, in which it was adjudged (5:4) that States did not have the right to impose a tax determined by the number of passengers of a designated category on board a ship and/or disembarking into the State. The Court did not produce a majority opinion. Eight Justices authored separate opinions, and the respective stances on various issues did not always align with other Justices in their concurring or dissenting bloc. The issues addressed in various opinions included the following: Whether the Commerce Clause exclusively commits the power to regulate foreign commerce, interstate commerce and commerce with the Indian tribes to the federal government, and thus makes State regulation concerning foreign commerce an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause, or whether the States were free to regulate in this area until such regulation conflicted with a valid federal regulation or involved an area which could only be regulated on a uniform basis; Whether regulation of migration of free individuals (as distinct from slaves) was included in the meaning of "commerce" covered by the Commerce Clause; Whether States had an absolute right to determine who could enter its geographical domain which could not be compromised, even by ratification of a foreign treaty, by the federal government, except with respect to federal officials, employees and agents, and foreign diplomats; Whether the federal government had any constitutional authority to regulate immigration from foreign nations (as distinct from its acknowledged power to determine which immigrants could be naturalized); Whether these laws violated the requirement of the introductory clause of Section 8 of Article I of the United States Constitution mandating that any imposts be "uniform throughout the United States; Whether Section 9 of Article I of the United States Constitution making 1808 a watershed date regarding Congressional power over "Such Persons as any of the States now existing should think proper to admit" referred only to the slave trade or also to immigration of free persons; Whether the nature of the New York and Massachusetts laws at bar in this case imposed a tax on the passengers or on the ships, and the implications of this distinction with respect to the nature of the taxation power of the States; and for those Justices concurring in the judgment of the Court; and the status and meaning of City of New York vs. Miln.[2] The Passengers Case is of historical interest. It portrays a diversity of views on several constitutional questions, especially whether the Commerce Clause prohibits any State regulation of interstate and foreign commerce in the absence of federal law or treaty. A bitter personal attack on Chief Justice Taney by Justice Wayne also provides a glimpse of the personal dynamics of this fractious court. However, the failure of the court in this instance to produce a majority opinion significantly diminishes the value of the Passengers Case as formal legal precedent.