Front Page Titles (by Subject) § 2.: The legal limitations upon police power.— - A Treatise on State and Federal Control of Persons and Property in the United States considered from both a Civil and Criminal Standpoint, vol. 1
Return to Title Page for A Treatise on State and Federal Control of Persons and Property in the United States considered from both a Civil and Criminal Standpoint, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
§ 2.: The legal limitations upon police power.— - Christopher G. Tiedeman, A Treatise on State and Federal Control of Persons and Property in the United States considered from both a Civil and Criminal Standpoint, vol. 1 
A Treatise on State and Federal Control of Persons and Property in the United States considered from both a Civil and Criminal Standpoint (St. Louis: The F.H. Thomas Law Book Co., 1900). Vol. 1.
Part of: A Treatise on State and Federal Control of Persons and Property in the United States considered from both a Civil and Criminal Standpoint, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The legal limitations upon police power.—
This is the subject of the present work, viz.: The legal limitations upon the police power of American governments, national and State. Where can these limitations be found, and in what do they consist? The legislature is clearly the department of the government which can and does exercise the police power, and consequently in the limitations upon the legislative power, are to be found the limitations of the police power. Whether there be other limitations or not, the most important and the most clearly defined are to be found in the national and State constitutions. Whenever an act of the legislature contravenes a constitutional provision, it is void, and it is the duty of the courts so to declare it, and refuse to enforce it. But is it in the power of the judiciary to declare an act of the legislature void, because it violates some abstract rule of justice, when there is no constitutional prohibition? Several eminent judges have more or less strongly insisted upon the doctrine that the authority of the legislature is not absolute in those cases in which the constitution fails to impose a restriction; that in no case can a law be valid, which violates the fundamental principles of free government, and infringes upon the original rights of men, and some of these judges claim for the judiciary, the power to annul such an enactment, and to forbid its enforcement.1 Judge Chase expresses himself as follows: “I cannot subscribe to the omnipotence of a State legislature, or that it is absolute and without control, although its authority should not be expressly restrained by the constitution or fundamental law of the State. The people of the United States erected their constitutions or forms of government, to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to secure the blessings of liberty, and to protect their persons and property from violence. The purposes for which we enter into society, will determine the nature and terms of the social compact; and as they are the foundation of the legislative power, they will decide what are the proper objects of it. The nature and ends of legislative power will limit the exercise of it. This fundamental principle flows from the very nature of our free republican governments, that no man should be compelled to do what the laws do not require, nor to refrain from acts which the laws permit. There are acts which the Federal or State legislature cannot do, without exceeding their authority. There are certain vital principles in our free republican governments, which will determine and overrule an apparent and flagrant abuse of legislative power; as to authorize manifest injustice by positive law, or to take away that security for personal liberty or private property for the protection whereof the government was established. An act of the legislature (for I cannot call it a law), contrary to the great first principle of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority. The obligation of a law in governments, established on express compact and on republican principles, must be determined by the nature of the power on which it is founded. * * * The legislature may enjoin, permit, forbid and punish; they may declare new crimes, and establish rules of conduct for all its citizens in future cases; they may command what is right, and prohibit what is wrong, but they cannot change innocence into guilt, or punish innocence as a crime; or violate the right of an antecedent lawful private contract, or the right of private property. To maintain that our Federal or State legislature possesses such powers, if they had not been expressly restrained, would in my opinion be a political heresy, altogether inadmissible in our free republican governments.” But notwithstanding the opinions of these eminently respectable judges, the current of authority, as well as substantial constitutional reasoning, is decidedly opposed to the doctrine. It may now be considered as an established principle of American law that the courts, in the performance of their duty to confine the legislative department within the constitutional limits of its power, cannot nullify and avoid a law, simply because it conflicts with the judicial notions of natural right or morality, or abstract justice.”1
While it is true that the courts have no authority to override the legislative judgment on the question of expediency or abstract justice in the enactment of a law, and if a case, arising under the statute, should come up before them for adjudication, they are obliged by their official oaths to enforce the statute notwithstanding it offends the commonest principles of justice, it is nevertheless true that a law which does not conform to the fundamental principles of free government and natural justice and morality, will prove ineffectual and will become a dead letter. No law can be enforced, particularly in a country governed directly by the popular will, which does not receive the moral and active support of a large majority of the people; and a law, which violates reason and offends against the prevalent conceptions of right and justice, will be deprived of the power necessary to secure its enforcement. The passage of such statutes, however beneficent may be the immediate object of them, will not only fail of attaining the particular end in view, but it tends on the one hand to create in those who are likely to violate them a contempt for the whole body of restrictive laws, and on the other hand, to inspire in those, from whom the necessary moral support is to be expected, a fear and distrust, sometimes hate, of legal restraint which is very destructive of their practical value. And such is particularly the case with police regulations. When confined within their proper limits, viz.: to compel every one to so use his own and so conduct himself as not to injure his neighbor or infringe upon his rights, police regulations should, and usually would, receive in a reasonably healthy community the enthusiastic support of the entire population. There have been, however, so many unjustifiable limitations imposed upon private rights and personal liberty, sumptuary laws, and laws for the correction of personal vice, laws which have in view the moral and religious elevation of the individual against his will, and sometimes in opposition to the dictates of his conscience (all of which objects, however beneficent they may be, do not come within the sphere of the governmental activity), that the modern world looks with distrust upon any exercise of police power; and however justifiable, reasonable and necessary to the general welfare may be a particular police regulation, it often meets with a determined opposition, and oftener with a death-dealing apathy on the part of those who are usually law-abiding citizens and active supporters of the law. Goethe makes Mephistopheles give the cause of this opposition in the following expressive language:—
which, roughly translated, means, “I can get along very well with the police, but badly with the hereditary monopoly.” (Blutbann.)1
But these are considerations, which can alone be addressed to the legislative department of the government. If an unwise law has been enacted, which does not infringe upon any constitutional limitation, the only remedy is an appeal to the people directly, or through their representatives, to repeal the law. The courts have no authority to interpose.
Judge Chase in Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386; Judge Story in Wilkinson v. Leland, 2 Pet. 657; Judge Bronson in Taylor v. Porter, 4 Hill, 145; Judge Strong in People v. Toynbec, 20 Barb. 218; Judge Hosmer in Goshen v. Storlington, 4 Conn. 259; Chancellor Walworth in Varick v. Smith, 5 Paige, 137; Judge Spaulding in Griffith v. Commissioners, 20 Ohio, 609; Ch. J. Parker, in Ross’ Case, 2 Pick. 169.
“The question whether the act under consideration is a valid exercise of legislative power is to be determined solely by reference to constitutional restraints and prohibitions. The legislative power has no other limitation. If an act should stand when brought to the test of the constitution, the question of its validity is at an end, and neither the executive nor judicial department of the government can refuse to recognize or enforce it. The theory, that laws may be declared void when deemed to be opposed to natural justice and equity, although they do not violate any constitutional provision, has some support in the dicta of learned judges, but has not been approved, so far as we know, by any authoritative adjudication, and is repudiated by numerous authorities. Indeed, under the broad and liberal interpretation now given to constitutional guaranties, there can be no violation of fundamental rights, which will not fall within the express or implied prohibition and restraints of the constitution and it is unnecessary to seek for principles outside of the constitution, under which legislation may be condemned.” Bertholf v. O’Reilly, 74 N. Y. 509. “Defendant insists that we should pronounce the law now in question to be void, on the ground that it is opposed to natural right and the fundamental principles of civil liberty. We are by no means prepared to accede to the doctrine involved in this claim, that under a written constitution like ours, in which the three great departments of government, the executive, legislative and judicial, are confided to distinct bodies of magistracy, the powers of each of which are expressly confined to its own proper department, and in which the powers of each are unlimited, in its appropriate sphere, except so far as they are abridged by the constitution itself, it is competent for the judicial department to deprive the legislature of powers which they are not restricted from exercising by that instrument. It would seem to be sufficient to prevent us from thus interposing, that the power exercised by the legislature is properly legislative in its character, which is unquestionably the case with respect to the law we have been considering, and that the consideration contains no restrictions upon its exercise in regard to the subject of it.” State v. Wheeler, 25 Conn. 290. See, also, Butler v. Palmer, 1 Hill, 324; Cochran v. Van Surley, 20 Wend. 380; Grant v. Courten, 24 Barb. 232; Benson v. Mayor, 24 Barb. 248, 252; Wynehamer v. People, 13 N. Y. 390; Town of Guilford v. Supervisors, 13 N. Y. 143; Sharpless v. Mayor, 21 Pa. St. 147; Bennett v. Boggs, 1 Bald. 74; Doe v. Douglass, 8 Blackf. 10; State v. Clottu, 33 Ind. 409; Stein v. Mayor, 24 Ala. 614; Dorman v. State, 34 Ala. 232; Boston v. Cummings, 16 Ga. 102; Hamilton v. St. Louis Co., 15 Mo. 23; Powell v. Com., 114 Pa. St. 265; Reeves v. Corning, 51 Fed. 774; Sinking Fund Cases, 99 U. S. 700, 718. “Every possible presumption is in favor of the validity of a statute, and this continues until the contrary is shown beyond a rational doubt. One branch of the government cannot encroach on the domain of another without danger. The safety of our institutions depends in no small degree on a strict observance of this salutary rule.” See, also, Fletcher v. Peck, 6 Cranch, 87, 128; Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheat. 518, 625; Livingston v. Darlington, 101 U. S. 407.
Reference is here made to those numerous monopolies, created in various industries for the benefit of certain powerful families and made hereditary, which proved beneficial to their possessors, while they were correspondingly oppressive to the poorer classes. This was one of the crying evils of the old French civilization which led up to the Revolution.