Gibbons v. Ogden

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In episode 16 of Supreme Court Briefs, two dudes fight over whether or not one can operate his steamboat in New York. In the end, the federal government just gets more power.

Produced by Matt Beat. Music by Matt Beat (Electric Needle Room). All images found in public domain.

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New York State

The New York state legislature grants Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton exclusive privileges to operate their steamboats on the rivers of the state. If those names sound familiar, it’s because Livingston was, I don’t know, A FOUNDING FATHER OF THE UNITED STATES, and Fulton, I don’t know, BUILT THE FIRST WORKING STEAMBOAT. Anyway, those two had exclusive privileges on the rivers of New York, meaning, no one else, meaning there’s no competition, meaning it’s a monopoly, baby.

Two other dudes, Thomas Gibbons and Aaron Ogden, bought a franchise from Livingston and Fulton so they could operate steamboats in New York, even though they hated the monopoly Livingston and Fulton had and at first tried to get around it.

Three years later, Gibbons and Ogden’s partnership ended. However, Gibbons kept on sending his steamboats from New Jersey to New York, despite no longer having the license to do so. Gibbons argued he could because he had a federal license from Congress, thanks to an old law regulating trade along the coast. Oh Gibbons, you sneaky person, you.

Obviously, Ogden, who was the former governor of New Jersey I might add, was very angry about this, as his former partner was taking away business from him by skirting passed a state law. Ogden made a complaint in the Court of Chancery of New York, asking them to stop Gibbons from operating steamboats there.

Gibbons got a lawyer named Daniel Webster, a famous Congressman and later Senator and Secretary of State, to defend him. Webster argued that Congress had the final say over buying and selling stuff across state lines thanks to the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The what?
The Commerce Clause, punks: Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3
Congress can “ “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

But the Court of Chancery and Court of Errors of New York both said “nuh-uh,” and sided with Ogden, forcing Gibbons to stop his steamboat operations there.

So Gibbons appealed to the Supreme Court. As the Court heard arguments in February 1824, the biggest question for them to answer was: “Was New York able to regulate commerce within its borders, even if that commerce depended on commerce in other states?” The Court said “no.” On March 2, 1824, the Court unanimously voted in favor of Gibbons. They agreed with Webster’s argument, that the Congress’s power overruled New York’s due to the Commerce Clause, but they also argued the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution guaranteed this.

Chief Justice John Marshall, aka Lil’ Jon, defined the word “commerce,” saying it included navigation on interstate waterways. He even defined the word “among,” saying “among the several states” meant basically mixed together. So whenever state laws conflicted Congress could step in.

Gibbons v. Ogden was the first of several Supreme Court decisions that increased the power of the federal government over the states. It greatly broadened the power of Congress, and that trend has continued to the present day.