Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113; 24 L. Ed. 77 (1877)

Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113; 24 L. Ed. 77 (1877)

Facts—Ira Y. Munn, et al., were grain warehousemen in Chicago, Illinois, and were sued by Illinois for transacting business without a state license in violation of a state statute that provided a maximum of charges for the storage of grain in a warehouse. The defendants admitted the facts charged, but alleged that the statute requiring said license was unconstitutional for attempting to fix that maximum rate of storage, on the ground that it was repugnant to the Constitution, which confers upon Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign states and among the several states.

Question—Can the General Assembly of Illinois, under the limitations upon the legislative powers of the states imposed by the Constitution, fix by law regulations for the storage of grain in warehouses at Chicago and other places in the state?


ReasonsC.J. Waite (7–2). The Court reasoned that it has always been an established principle that where members of the public have a definite and positive interest in a business, they have a right to regulate the operations of that business. The Court held that such was the case here, and it did not matter that these plaintiffs had built their warehouses and established their business before the regulations complained of were adopted. What they did was from the beginning always subject to possible regulations promoting the common good. They entered upon their business and provided themselves with the means to carry it on, subject to this condition. If they did not wish to submit themselves to such interference, they should not have clothed the public with an interest in their concerns. “Property does become clothed with a public interest when used in a manner to make it of public consequence, and affect the community at large. When, therefore, one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in the use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good, to the extent of the interest he has thus created. He may withdraw his grant by discontinuing the use; but so long as he maintains the use, he must submit to the control. We know that this is a power which may be abused; but that is no argument against its existence. For protection against abuses by legislatures the people must resort to the polls, not to the courts.”

In a strong dissenting opinion, J. Field argued that declaring a business to be in the public interest did not make it so, especially in the absence of any state-granted right or privilege. He thought the regulation was a restriction of property rights in violation of due process rights (what would become known as substantive due process) of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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