Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Mellon (Frothingham v. Mellon), 262 U.S. 447; 43 S. Ct. 597; 67 L. Ed. 1078 (1923)

Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Mellon (Frothingham v. Mellon), 262 U.S. 447; 43 S. Ct. 597; 67 L. Ed. 1078 (1923)

Facts—The Maternity Act of November 23, 1921 provided for annual federal appropriations for states that cooperated to reduce maternal and infant mortality and protect the health of mothers and infants. The state of Massachusetts, in an original suit against the secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon, stated that the act of November 23, 1921, “The Maternity Act,” was an unconstitutional attempt by the federal government to usurp reserved powers of the states as guaranteed by the Constitution in the Tenth Amendment.

Mrs. Frothingham appealed from a decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals of Washington, D.C., endeavoring to have the Supreme Court enjoin the enforcement of the act on the ground that the provisions of this act would take her property under the guise of taxation.

Questions—(a) Can the Supreme Court issue an enjoining order on a federal appropriation act in a suit brought by the state?

(b) Can a taxpayer invoke the power of the court to enjoin a federal appropriation act on the ground that it is invalid because it imposes hardship?

Decisions—(a) No. Case dismissed;

(b) No. Decision of lower court upheld.

ReasonsJ. Sutherland (9–0). The state cannot institute judicial proceedings to protect citizens of the United States who are also its citizens from the operation of federal statutes. Further, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of an act of Congress, which is to become operative in any state only upon acceptance by it, on the grounds that Congress is legislating outside its power and into the reserved powers of the states. This is a political question and not judicial in character. “His [the taxpayer’s] interest in the moneys of the treasury—partly realized from taxation and partly from other sources—is shared with millions of others, is comparatively minute and indeterminable, and the effect upon future taxation, of any payment out of the funds, so remote, fluctuating, and uncertain, that no basis is afforded for an appeal to the preventive powers of a court of equity.” A party invoking judicial action to hold a law of appropriation unconstitutional must show direct injury sustained or threatened, not merely that the individual is suffering in an indefinite way with the general public.

Note—Although the Mellon principle is still strong, Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968), provides standing to taxpayers challenging some federal spending in violation of the establishment clause in the First Amendment.

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