255 U.S. 81 (1921), 324, United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Company

Docket Nº:No. 324
Citation:255 U.S. 81, 41 S.Ct. 298, 65 L.Ed. 516
Party Name:United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Company
Case Date:February 28, 1921
Court:United States Supreme Court

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255 U.S. 81 (1921)

41 S.Ct. 298, 65 L.Ed. 516

United States


L. Cohen Grocery Company

No. 324

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 28, 1921

Argued October 18, 19, 1921




1. Section 4 of the Food Control Act of August 10, 1917, as amended October 22, 1919, in denouncing and attaching a penalty of fine or imprisonment to the making by any person of "any unjust or unreasonable rate or charge in handling or dealing in or with any necessaries," must be construed as forbidding and penalizing the exaction of an excessive price upon the sale of a commodity. P. 88.

2. To that extent the section, since it sets up no ascertainable standard of guilt, is repugnant to the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution, which require due process of law and that persons accused of crime shall be adequately informed of the nature and cause of the accusation. P. 89.

3. The mere existence of a state of war did not suspend these guarantees of the Amendments or relieve Congress from their limitations. P. 88.

264 F. 218 affirmed.

This is one of several cases (see post 98, 100, 102, 104, 106, 108, 109) involving the constitutionality, in part, of § 4 of the Act of August 10, 1917, c. 53, 40 Stat. 276, known as the Food Control or Lever Act, as amended by § 2 of the Act of October 22, 1919, c. 80, 41 Stat. 297, which is set out below.1

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

[41 S.Ct. 299] MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Required on this direct appeal to decide whether Congress, under the Constitution, had authority to adopt

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§ 4 of the Lever Act as reenacted in 1919, we reproduce the section so far as relevant (Act Oct. 22, 1919, c. 80, § 2, 41 Stat. 297):

That it is hereby made unlawful for any person willfully . . . to make any unjust or unreasonable rate or charge in handling or dealing in or with any necessaries; to conspire, combine, agree, or arrange with any other person . . . (e) to exact excessive prices for any necessaries. . . . Any person violating any of the provisions of this section, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not exceeding $5,000 or be imprisoned for not more than two years, or both. . . .

The text thus reproduced is followed by two provisos exempting from the operation either of the section or of the act enumerated persons or classes of persons engaged in agricultural or similar pursuits.

Comparing the reenacted section with the original text (Act Aug. 10, 1917, c. 53, § 4, 40 Stat. 276), it will be seen that the only changes made by the reenactment were the insertion of the penalty clause and an enlargement of the enumerated exemptions.

In each of two counts the defendant, the Cohen Grocery Company, alleged to be a dealer in sugar and other necessaries in the City of St. Louis, was charged with violating this section by willfully and feloniously making an unjust and unreasonable rate and charge in handling and dealing in a certain necessary, the specification in the first count being a sale for $10.07 of about 50 pounds of sugar, and that in the second of a 100-pound bag of sugar for $19.50.

The defendant demurred on the following grounds: (a) that both counts were so vague as not to inform it of the nature and cause of the accusation; (b) that the statute upon which the indictment was based was subject to the same infirmity because it was so indefinite as not to enable it to be known what was forbidden, and

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therefore amounted to a delegation by Congress of legislative power to courts and juries to determine what acts should be held to be criminal and punishable, and (c) that, as the country was virtually at peace, Congress had no power to regulate the subject with which the section dealt. In passing on the demurrer, the court, declaring that this Court had settled that, until the official declaration of peace, there was a status of war, nevertheless decided that such conclusion was wholly negligible as to the other issues raised by the demurrer, since it was equally well settled by this Court that the mere status of war did not, of its own force, suspend or limit the effect of the Constitution, but only caused limitations which the Constitution made applicable as the necessary and appropriate result of the status of war to become operative. Holding that this latter result was not the case as to the particular provisions of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments which it had under consideration -- that is, as to the prohibitions which those amendments imposed upon Congress against delegating legislative power to courts and juries, against penalizing indefinite acts, and against depriving the citizen of the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him -- the court, giving effect to the amendments in question, came to consider the grounds of demurrer relating to those subjects. In doing so and referring to an opinion previously expressed by it in charging a jury, the court said:

Congress alone has power to define crimes against the United States. This power cannot be delegated either to the courts or to the juries of this country. . . .

Therefore, because the law is vague, indefinite, and uncertain, and because it fixes no immutable standard of guilt, but leaves such standard to the variant views of the different courts and juries which may be called on to enforce it, and because it does not inform defendant of the nature and cause of the accusation against it,

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I think it is constitutionally invalid, and that the demurrer offered by the defendant ought to be sustained.

The indictment was therefore quashed.

In cases submitted at about the same time with the one before us, and involving identical questions with those here in issue, it is contended that the section does not embrace the matters charged. We come, therefore, on our own motion in this case, to dispose of that subject, since, if well founded, the contention would render a consideration of the constitutional questions unnecessary. The basis upon which the contention rests is that the words of the section do not embrace the price at which a commodity is sold, and, at any rate, the receipt of such price is not thereby intended to be penalized. We are of opinion, however, that these propositions are without merit, first, because the words of the section, as reenacted, are broad enough to embrace the price for which a commodity is sold, and second because, as the amended section plainly imposes a penalty for the acts which it includes when committed after its passage, the fact that the section, before its reenactment, contained no penalty is of no moment. This must be the case unless it can be said that the failure at one time to impose a penalty for a forbidden act furnishes an adequate ground for preventing the subsequent enforcement of a penalty which is specifically and unmistakably provided.

We are of opinion that the court below was clearly right in ruling that the decisions of this Court indisputably establish that the mere existence of a state of war [41 S.Ct. 300] could not suspend or change the operation upon the power of Congress of the guaranties and limitations of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments as to questions such as we are here passing upon. Ex parte Milligan, 4 Wall. 2, 121-127; Monongahela Navigation Co. v. United States, 148 U.S. 312, 336; United States v. Joint Traffic Association, 171 U.S. 505, 571; McCray v. United States, 195 U.S. 27, 61;

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United States v. Cress, 243 U.S. 316, 326; Hamilton v. Kentucky Distilleries Company, 251 U.S. 146, 156. It follows that, in testing the operation of the Constitution upon the subject here involved, the question of the existence or nonexistence of a state of war becomes negligible, and we put it out of view.

The sole remaining inquiry, therefore, is the certainty or uncertainty of the text in question -- that is, whether the words

that it is hereby made unlawful for any person willfully . . . to make any unjust or unreasonable rate or charge in handling or dealing in or with any necessaries

constituted a fixing by Congress of an ascertainable standard of guilt, and are adequate to inform persons accused of violation thereof of the nature and cause of the accusation against them. That they are not, we are of opinion, so clearly results from their mere statement as to render elaboration on the subject wholly unnecessary. Observe that the section forbids no specific or definite act. It confines the subject matter of the investigation which it authorizes to no element essentially inhering in the transaction as to which it provides. It leaves open, therefore, the widest conceivable inquiry, the scope of which no one can foresee and the result of which no one can foreshadow or adequately guard against. In fact, we see no reason to doubt the soundness of the observation of the court below in its opinion to the effect that to attempt to enforce the section would be the exact equivalent of an effort to carry out a statute which in terms merely penalized and punished all acts detrimental to the public interest when unjust and unreasonable in the estimation of the court and jury. And that this is not a mere abstraction finds abundant demonstration in the cases now before us, since, in the briefs in these cases, the conflicting results which have arisen from the painstaking attempts of enlightened judges in seeking to carry out the statute in cases brought before them are vividly

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portrayed. As illustrative of this situation, we append in the margin a statement from one of the briefs on the subject.2 And again, this condition would be additionally

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obvious if we stopped to recur to the persistent efforts which, the records disclose, were made by administrative officers, doubtless inspired by a zealous effort to discharge their...

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