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J.W. Hampton, Jr. & Co. v. United States, 276 U.S. 394; 48 S. Ct. 348; 72 L. Ed. 624 (1928)

J.W. Hampton, Jr. & Co. v. United States, 276 U.S. 394; 48 S. Ct. 348; 72 L. Ed. 624 (1928)

Facts—J.W. Hampton, Jr. and Company imported some goods at a New York port and was assessed a rate higher than fixed by statute. The collector of the port assessed the increase under authority of a proclamation by the president. The basis of the tariff was an act of Congress setting up a Tariff Commission under the executive branch of the government. The act gave the president the power to fix and change duties on imports after investigation by the commission and notice given to all parties interested to produce evidence. This was the so-called flexible tariff provision. The law provided that the increase or decrease of the tariff duties should not exceed 50 percent of the rate set by Congress. The Hampton Company contended that the act gave the president the power to legislate and therefore was unconstitutional.

Question—Does the act allowing the president to alter specified tariffs invoke improper delegation of legislative power?


Reasons—C.J. Taft (9–0). The Court held that the true distinction is between the delegation of power to make the law, which necessarily involves a discretion as to what it shall be, and conferring an authority or discretion as to its execution, to be exercised under and in pursuance of the law. The first cannot be done; the second, as was the case here, is valid.

The Court referred to the reasoning in Field v. Clark, 143 U.S. 649 (1892), to substantiate the point that Congress did not delegate legislative powers to the president, because nothing involving the contents of the law was left to the president’s determination. The legislative power was performed when Congress passed an act setting up the Tariff Commission as a part of the executive branch, placing the power to execute the law in the hands of the president, and setting down the general rules of action under which both the commission and the president should proceed.

“What the president was required to do was merely in execution of the act of Congress. It was not the making of law. He was the mere agent of the law making department to ascertain and declare the event upon which its ex[1]pressed will was to take effect.”

The Court also upheld the protection features of the tariff act as a proper exercise of its power over foreign commerce, as well as on the basis of action by the First Congress, which was composed, in part, of Framers of the Constitution.

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