United States v. Carolene Products Co.

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United States v. Carolene Products Co.
Argued April 6, 1938
Decided April 25, 1938
Full case nameUnited States v. Carolene Products Company
Citations304 U.S. 144 (more)
58 S. Ct. 778; 82 L. Ed. 1234; 1938 U.S. LEXIS 1022
Case history
PriorDemurrer to indictment sustained, 7 F. Supp. 500 (S.D. Ill. 1934)
The Filled Milk Act did not exceed the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, or violate due process under the Fifth Amendment.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Charles E. Hughes
Associate Justices
James C. McReynolds · Louis Brandeis
Pierce Butler · Harlan F. Stone
Owen Roberts · Benjamin N. Cardozo
Hugo Black · Stanley F. Reed
Case opinions
MajorityStone, joined by Hughes, Brandeis, Roberts, Black (except the part designated "Third")
Reed and Cardozo took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. I; U.S. Const. amend. V; 21 U.S.C. § 61-63 (1938) (Filled Milk Act § 61-63)

United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144 (1938), was a case of the United States Supreme Court that upheld the federal government's power to prohibit filled milk from being shipped in interstate commerce. In his majority opinion for the Court, Associate Justice Harlan F. Stone wrote that economic regulations were "presumptively constitutional" under a deferential standard of review known as the "rational basis test".

The case is most notable for Footnote Four, in which Stone wrote that the Court would exercise a stricter standard of review when a law appears on its face to violate a provision of the United States Constitution, restricts the political process in a way that could impede the repeal of an undesirable law, or discriminates against "discrete and insular" minorities. Footnote Four would influence later Supreme Court decisions, and the higher standard of review is now known as "strict scrutiny".


The case dealt with a federal law that prohibited filled milk (skimmed milk compounded with any fat or oil other than milk fat to resemble milk or cream) from being shipped in interstate commerce. The defendant, a company that traded in a form of filled milk consisting of condensed skim milk and coconut oil (which the company labeled "Milnot" or "Milnut"), argued that the law was unconstitutional because of both the Commerce Clause and the Due Process Clause.

In its previous term, the Court had dramatically increased the number of activities considered to be in or to affect interstate commerce. It had also altered its settled jurisprudence in the area of substantive due process, the doctrine dealing with rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. The changes meant that many New Deal programs that the Court would previously have struck down as unconstitutional would now be found constitutional.

The defendant company, charged with breaking the law, at trial filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois granted the defendant's motion, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's ruling.


Justice Harlan Stone, writing for the Court, held that the law was "presumptively constitutional" properly within legislative discretion. It was not for the courts to overrule because it was supported by substantial public-health evidence and was not arbitrary or irrational. In other words, the Court applied a "rational basis" test.

Footnote Four[edit]

Carolene Products is best known for its Footnote Four, which is considered to be "the most famous footnote in constitutional law."[1][2] Although the Court had applied minimal scrutiny (rational basis review) to the economic regulation in this case, Footnote Four reserved for other types of cases other, stricter standards of review.

Stone said that legislation aimed at "discrete and insular minorities" without the normal protections of the political process would be one exception to the presumption of constitutionality and justify a heightened standard of judicial review. The idea has greatly influenced jurisprudence on the Equal Protection Clause jurisprudence and judicial review. It recapitulated common law jurisprudence by which evidence of fraud or other significant legal defects in the transaction, such as self-dealing or other impropriety, may justify overturning a rule.

Louis Lusky, Stone's law clerk during the 1937 term, helped draft Footnote Four.[3] The constitutional law scholar John Hart Ely based his major work, Democracy and Distrust, on Footnote Four's second and third paragraphs, which correspond to the "Democracy" and "Distrust" of his title.


There may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten Amendments, which are deemed equally specific when held to be embraced within the Fourteenth. See Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 369, 370, 51 S.Ct. 532, 535, 536, 75 L.Ed. 1117, 73 A.L.R. 1484; Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 58 S.Ct. 666, 82 L.Ed. 949, decided March 28, 1938.

It is unnecessary to consider now whether legislation that restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation, is to be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny under the general prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment than are most other types of legislation. On restrictions upon the right to vote, see Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 47 S.Ct. 446, 71 L.Ed. 759; Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73, 52 S.Ct. 484, 76 L.Ed. 984, 88 A.L.R. 458; on restraints upon the dissemination of information, see Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 713—714, 718—720, 722, 51 S.Ct. 625, 630, 632, 633, 75 L.Ed. 1357; Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 56 S.Ct. 444, 80 L.Ed. 660; Lovell v. Griffin, supra; on interferences with political organizations, see Stromberg v. California, supra, 283 U.S. 359, 369, 51 S.Ct. 532, 535, 75 L.Ed. 1117, 73 A.L.R. 1484; Fiske v. Kansas, 274 U.S. 380, 47 S.Ct. 655, 71 L.Ed. 1108; Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 373—378, 47 S.Ct. 641, 647, 649, 71 L.Ed. 1095; Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242, 57 S.Ct. 732, 81 L.Ed. 1066; and see Holmes, J., in Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 673, 45 S.Ct. 625, 69 L.Ed. 1138; as to prohibition of peaceable assembly, see De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353, 365, 57 S.Ct. 255, 260, 81 L.Ed. 278.

Nor need we enquire whether similar considerations enter into the review of statutes directed at particular religious, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 45 S.Ct. 571, 69 L.Ed. 1070, 39 A.L.R. 468, or national, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 43 S.Ct. 625, 67 L.Ed. 1042, 29 A.L.R. 1446; Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404, 43 S.Ct. 628, 67 L.Ed. 1047; Farrington v. Tokushige, 273 U.S. 284, 47 S.Ct. 406, 71 L.Ed. 646, or racial minorities. Nixon v. Herndon, supra; Nixon v. Condon, supra; whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry. Compare McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 428, 4 L.Ed. 579; South Carolina State Highway Department v. Barnwell Bros., 303 U.S. 177, 58 S.Ct. 510, 82 L.Ed. 734, decided February 14, 1938, note 2, and cases cited.


In keeping with the New Deal Revolution, Carolene Products applies the "rational basis test" to economic legislation. An extremely low standard of judicial review, there is a presumption that the legislation in question is constitutional and the challenging party must show that the law fails the test. Most legislation enacted by Congress or state legislatures that deals with economic regulation falls under rational basis review and, therefore, must only be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. However, Carolene Products is most famous for Footnote Four.

Footnote Four describes certain legislative acts that might give rise to a higher level of scrutiny. If a law:

  1. appears on its face to violate a provision of the US Constitution, especially in the Bill of Rights,
  2. restricts the political process that could repeal an undesirable law, such as restricting voting rights, organizing, disseminating information etc., or
  3. discriminates against "discrete and insular" minorities, especially racial, religious, and national minorities and particularly those who lack sufficient numbers or power to seek redress through the political process.

This higher level of scrutiny, now called "strict scrutiny", was applied to strike down an inmate forced sterilization law in Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) and in Justice Black's infamous opinion in Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) in which Japanese internment was upheld despite being subject to heightened scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, a law will be struck down unless it serves a compelling governmental interest and is necessary to achieve that end, which means that less restrictive alternatives to the law must be considered by the government even if there is a compelling interest. Therefore, the law must be narrowly tailored to serve the governmental interest and employ the least restrictive alternative.

Intermediate scrutiny, which is often applied in gender discrimination cases, did not arise until decades later. When applied, the law must serve an important governmental interest and be substantially related to that end.

Some argue that the "most famous footnote" was in fact written by not Stone but his law clerk, Louis Lusky.[4] In fact, the cited work above, while quite useful on the origin and growth of the footnote, does not claim that the law clerk was the author, and it implies the opposite, based on letters between the justices. In his later work, Our Nine Tribunes: The Supreme Court in Modern America, however, Lusky includes facsimiles of the original drafts of the footnote, the first of which is in his own hand. Stone edited the second, typed draft, and at the behest of the Chief Justice, he added certain passages.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Levels of Scrutiny Under the Equal Protection Clause In: University of Missoury-Kansas City School of Law Project "exploring Constitutional Conflicts" by Doug Linder (2001)". University of Missoury-Kansas City School of Law. Archived from the original on February 1, 2011. Retrieved June 8, 2008.
  2. ^ Schulz, David. "Carolene Products Footnote Four". The First Amendment Encyclopedia presented by the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies. Archived from the original on April 8, 2020. Retrieved August 2, 2020.
  3. ^ Linzer, Peter (1995). "The Carolene Products Footnote and the Preferred Position of Individual Rights: Louis Lusky and John Hart Ely Vs. Harlan Fiske Stone". Constitutional Commentary. 12: 281–283 – via University of Minnesota Law School Scholarship Repository.
  4. ^ Lusky, Louis (1982). "Footnote Redux: A "Carolene Products" Reminiscence". Columbia Law Review. 82 (6): 1093–1109. doi:10.2307/1122160. JSTOR 1122160.

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