Tag Archives: Landmark decisions

United States Supreme Court Series: 45 of the most significant decisions (2 of 45 – Gibbons v. Ogden)

This educational series is sponsored by AutoGrabBag.com, a faith-based small business car accessory gift store.

This is the 2nd post of a 45 post United States Supreme Court Series designed to provide short educational summaries of the 45 most significant Supreme Court decisions ever issued. I encourage you to share these posts with anyone you think might benefit from them.

Note: You can receive email notifications for all upcoming posts by clicking on PendletonUpdates and adding your email under the “Subscribe” button.

The case of Gibbons v. Ogden, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1824, was a major step in the expansion of the power of the federal government to deal with challenges to U.S. domestic policy. The decision confirmed that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution granted Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, including the commercial use of navigable waterways. 

Fast Facts: Gibbons v. Ogden

  • Case Argued: February 5—February 9, 1824
  • Decision Issued: March 2, 1824
  • Petitioner: Thomas Gibbons (appellant)
  • Respondent: Aaron Ogden (appellee)
  • Key Questions: Was it within New York State’s rights to issue laws regarding navigation within its jurisdiction, or does the Commerce Clause give Congress authority over interstate navigation?
  • Unanimous Decision: Justices Marshall, Washington, Todd, Duvall, and Story (Justice Thompson abstained)
  • Ruling: As interstate navigation fell under interstate commerce, New York could not interfere with it, and the law was therefore invalid.

Circumstances of Gibbons v. Ogden

In 1808, the state government of New York awarded a private transport company a virtual monopoly to operate its steamboats on the state’s rivers and lakes, including rivers that ran between New York and adjoining states.

This state-sanctioned steamboat company granted Aaron Ogden a license to operate steamboats between Elizabethtown Point in New Jersey and New York City. As one of Ogden’s business partners, Thomas Gibbons, operated his steamboats along the same route under a federal coasting license issued to him by an act of Congress.

The Gibbons-Ogden partnership ended in dispute when Ogden claimed that Gibbons was undercutting their business by unfairly competing with him.

Ogden filed a complaint in the New York Court of Errors seeking to stop Gibbons from operating his boats. Ogden argued that the license granted to him by the New York monopoly was valid and enforceable even though he operated his boats on shared, interstate waters. Gibbons disagreed arguing that the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the sole power over interstate commerce.

The Court of Errors sided with Ogden. After losing his case in another New York court, Gibbons appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Constitution grants the federal government the overriding power to regulate how interstate commerce is conducted.

Some of the Parties Involved

The case of Gibbons v. Ogden was argued and decided by some of the most iconic lawyers and jurists in U.S. history. Exiled Irish patriot Thomas Addis Emmet and Thomas J. Oakley represented Ogden, while U.S. Attorney General William Wirt and Daniel Webster argued for Gibbons.

The decision of the Supreme Court was written and delivered by America’s fourth Chief Justice John Marshall.

“. . . Rivers and bays, in many cases, form the divisions between States; and thence it was obvious, that if the States should make regulations for the navigation of these waters, and such regulations should be repugnant and hostile, embarrassment would necessarily happen to the general intercourse of the community. Such events had actually occurred, and had created the existing state of things.”

— John Marshall — Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824

The Decision

In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress alone had the power to regulate interstate and coastal trade.

The decision answered two pivotal questions about the Constitution’s Commerce Clause: First, exactly what constituted “commerce?” And, what did the term “among the several states” mean?

The Court held that “commerce” is the actual trade of commodities, including the commercial transportation of commodities using navigation. Also, the word “among” meant “intermingled with” or cases in which one or more states had an active interest in the commerce involved.

Siding with Gibbons, the decision read, in part: 

“If, as has always been understood, the sovereignty of Congress, though limited to specified objects, is plenary as to those objects, the power over commerce with foreign nations and among the several states is vested in Congress as absolutely as it would be in a single government, having in its constitution the same restrictions on the exercise of the power as are found in the Constitution of the United States.”

The Significance of Gibbons v. Ogden 

Decided 35 years after the ratification of the Constitution, the case of Gibbons v. Ogden represented a significant expansion of the power of the federal government to address issues involving U.S. domestic policy and the rights of the states.

The Articles of Confederation had left the national government virtually powerless to enact policies or regulations dealing with the actions of the states. In the Constitution, the framers included the Commerce Clause in the Constitution to address this problem.

Though the Commerce Clause gave Congress some power over commerce, it was unclear just how much. The Gibbons decision clarified some of these issues.

In the long run, Gibbons v. Ogden would be used to justify the future expansion of congressional power to control not only commercial activity but a vast range of activities previously thought to be under the exclusive control of the states. Gibbons v. Ogden gave Congress the preemptive power over the states to regulate any aspect of commerce involving the crossing of state lines. As a result of Gibbons, any state law regulating in-state commercial activities—such as the minimum wage paid to workers in an in-state factory—can be overturned by Congress if, for example, the factory’s products are also sold in other states. In this manner, Gibbons is often cited as justification for the enactment and enforcement of federal laws regulating the sale of firearms and ammunition.

Perhaps more than any case in the history of the Supreme Court, Gibbons v. Ogden set the stage for massive growth in the power of the federal government during the 20th century.

John Marshall’s Role

In his opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall provided a clear definition of the word “commerce” and the meaning of the term, “among the several states” in the Commerce Clause. Today, Marshall’s is regarded as the most influential opinions concerning this key clause.​

“… Few things were better known, than the immediate causes which led to the adoption of the present constitution … that the prevailing motive was to regulate commerce; to rescue it from the embarrassing and destructive consequences, resulting from the legislation of so many different States, and to place it under the protection of a uniform law.”—John Marshall—Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824


United States Supreme Court Series: 45 of the most significant decisions (1 of 45 – Marbury v. Madison)

This educational series is sponsored by AutoGrabBag.com, a faith-based small business car accessory gift store.

This Supreme Court Series will present brief summaries of 45 of the Court’s most impactful decisions. This educational series is intended for everyone, not just law students, attorneys or judges. Every person that graduates from our public education system should have a basic working knowledge of the United States Supreme Court and at least some of these 45 landmark decisions, unfortunately, most do not.

Each of the blog posts in this series will be short and succinct, capable of being read within 5 minutes (short enough for even the most distracted teenager). This first post, however, will be a bit longer because it includes some basic Supreme Court background information. I encourage you to share these posts with anyone you think might benefit from them.

Note: You can receive email notifications for all upcoming posts by clicking on PendletonUpdates and adding your email under the “Subscribe” button.

  • The US Supreme Court was formed in 1789. It’s gone from 5 seats to 10, and is now fixed at 9.
  • It makes fewer than 100 decisions every year, but its choices have had a huge impact on the country.
  • Some decisions have changed race relations for the better, empowered women, helped protect the environment, or guaranteed a person’s right to expression. Not every decision has aged well. Some decisions have strengthened racist laws, enabled forced sterilization, and allowed unequal schooling.

Supreme Court Background

Article III of the Constitution establishes the federal judiciary. Article III, Section I states that “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Although the Constitution establishes the Supreme Court, it permits Congress to decide how to organize it. Congress first exercised this power in the Judiciary Act of 1789. This Act created a Supreme Court with six justices. It also established the lower federal court system.

The Justices

Over the years, various Acts of Congress have altered the number of seats on the Supreme Court, from a low of five to a high of 10. Shortly after the Civil War, the number of seats on the Court was fixed at nine. Today, there is one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Like all federal judges, justices are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the Senate. They, typically, hold office for life. These restrictions are meant to protect the independence of the judiciary from the political branches of government.

The Court’s Jurisdiction

Article III, Section II of the Constitution establishes the jurisdiction (legal ability to hear a case) of the Supreme Court. The Court has original jurisdiction (a case is tried before the Court) over certain cases, e.g., suits between two or more states and/or cases involving ambassadors and other public ministers. The Court has appellate jurisdiction (the Court can hear the case on appeal) on almost any other case that involves a point of constitutional and/or federal law. Some examples include cases to which the United States is a party, cases involving Treaties, and cases involving ships on the high seas and navigable waterways (admiralty cases).


When exercising its appellate jurisdiction, the Court, with a few exceptions, does not have to hear a case. The Certiorari Act of 1925 gives the Court the discretion to decide whether or not to do so. In a petition for a writ of certiorari, a party asks the Court to review its case. The Supreme Court agrees to hear about 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year.


The Supreme Court plays a very important role in our constitutional system of government. First, as the highest court in the land, it is the court of last resort for those looking for justice. Second, due to its power of judicial review (explained below), it plays an essential role in ensuring that each branch of government recognizes the limits of its own power. Third, it protects civil rights and liberties by striking down laws that violate the Constitution. Finally, it sets appropriate limits on democratic government by ensuring that popular majorities cannot pass laws that harm and/or take undue advantage of unpopular minorities. In essence, it serves to ensure that the changing views of a majority do not undermine the fundamental values common to all Americans, i.e., freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process of law.

Judicial Review

The best-known power of the Supreme Court is judicial review, or the ability of the Court to declare a Legislative or Executive act in violation of the Constitution, is not found within the text of the Constitution itself. The Court established this doctrine in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803).


The case: Before President Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, lame duck John Adams and Congress created new courts and appointed dozens of judges, including William Marbury as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia. But the new administration’s Secretary of State James Madison wouldn’t validate the appointment. So Marbury sued.

The decision: The justices ruled unanimously that Madison’s refusal to validate the appointment was unlawful, but did not order Madison to hand over Marbury’s appointment commission via writ of mandamus (i.e. a court order which requires a party to perform a specific act required by law) because the law Marbury had sued under was also unconstitutional. The Court held that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 enabling Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court was itself unconstitutional, since it purported to extend the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which Article III, Section 2, established. 

Chief Justice Marshall ruled that a writ of mandamus was the proper way to seek a remedy, but concluded that the Supreme Court could not issue it. Marshall reasoned that the Judiciary Act of 1789 (a congressional law) conflicted with the Constitution. Congress did not have power to modify the Constitution through regular legislation because the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause places the Constitution before the laws. 

More importantly, this ruling held that the Supreme Court had the power of “judicial review” to decide whether a law or executive action is constitutional. This essentially gave the high court the legal authority for every decision it would make in the future (i.e. the power to declare a law unconstitutional).

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.

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