Passenger Cases Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although the case’s theoretical foundations were notoriously unclear, in the Passenger Cases the Supreme Court held that the individual states did not have the authority to tax immigrants entering the country, nor did they have the right to regulate commerce with foreign nations.

Massachusetts and New York enacted legislation that charged ships’ captains with a fee on every incoming passenger, including immigrants and foreign visitors. When the issue reached the Supreme Court, the justices voted 5-4 to strike down the laws, thereby overruling the precedent of New York v. Miln (1837). Among the eight separate and confusing opinions, at least three justices based their decision on the commerce clause of the [a]Constitution, U.S.;commerce clauseU.S. Constitution, which authorized Congress and not the states to regulate commerce with foreign nations. The two other justices in the majority appeared to base their decisions on other grounds. The four justices in the minority wanted to continue the Miln precedent, which had held that such fees were a legitimate application of the states’ police power. In subsequent rulings, particularly Henderson v. Mayor of the City of New York (1875), a firm majority of the Court would unambiguously rule that the commerce clause prohibited the states from imposing "Head taxes"[head taxes];and states[states]head taxes or bonds on passengers from other countries.[c]PassengerCases[c]Norris v. Boston[c]Smith v. Turner[c]Passenger Cases[c]Norris v. Boston[c]Smith v. Turner[cat]COURT CASES;Passenger Cases[04090][c]Passenger Cases[c]Norris v. Boston[c]Smith v. Turner

Further Reading
  • Chuman, Frank. The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese Americans. Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher’s Inc., 1976.
  • Itō, Kazuo. Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America. Seattle: Japanese Community Service, 1973.

Capitation taxes

Congress, U.S.

Constitution, U.S.

Head Money Cases

Henderson v. Mayor of the City of New York

History of immigration, 1783-1891

Supreme Court, U.S.

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