• Last updated on November 11, 2022

By deciding that the issue of noncoercive federal grants to the states was a political controversy and therefore nonjusticiable, the Supreme Court tacitly announced that such programs did not have any constitutional objections.

The Sheppard-Towner Act[]Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921 provided federal subsidies for state programs promoting infant and maternal health. Massachusetts asserted in federal court that the act undermined state sovereignty by extending federal power into functions properly reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment. Although acceptance of a subsidy was voluntary, Massachusetts argued that the financial penalty for nonacceptance was so great that states were coerced into accepting the federal funds.Political questions;Massachusetts v. Mellon[Massachusetts v. Mellon]

By a 9-0 vote, the Supreme Court held that the case presented no “justiciable controversy.” In the opinion for the Court, Justice George SutherlandSutherland, George;Massachusetts v. Mellon[Massachusetts v. Mellon] concluded that the states were not coerced into accepting federal funds and that the program was financed by individual taxpayers. A state had no judicial standing to sue the federal government on behalf of its citizens. Although Sutherland wrote that the Court had no authority to make hypothetical judgments about “abstract questions,” his opinion included an obiter dictum strongly suggesting that federal grants-in-aid were entirely constitutional. In a companion case, Frothingham v. Mellon[case]Frothingham v. Mellon[Frothingham v. Mellon] (1923), the Court held that taxpayers did not have standing to challenge federal spending programs. The two Mellon decisions were important because they removed a potential obstacle to the great expansion of federal grants that occurred during the New Deal period.

Federalism

Frothingham v. Mellon

New Deal

Political questions

Standing

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