Cooley v. Board of Wardens

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Cooley v. Board of Wardens, 53 U.S. 299 (1851).

Facts: PA passed a statute requiring vessels entering or leaving the port of Philadelphia to accept local pilots while in the Delaware River. The penalty for disobedience was ½ the pilotage fees. Cooley (D), consignee of two vessels, was sued by the Board of Wardens of the port (P) for the penalty. P relied on a 1789 congressional statute that incorporated all then-existing state laws regulating pilots and that mandated conformity with subsequently enacted state regulation, such as the law in this case. D contends that Congress cannot delegate its powers in this manner. D appeals state court judgments for P.

Issue: May Congress permit the states to regulate aspects of commerce that are primarily local in nature?

Holding: Yes.

Judgment: Affirmed.


  • Regulation of pilots is clearly a regulation of commerce. If Congress’s power to regulate commerce is exclusive, the Act of 1789 could not confer upon the states the power to regulate pilots.
  • The correct approach looks to the nature of the subjects of the power, rather than the nature of the power itself. Many subjects are national in nature, but some are local, like the one involved here. When a subject is national, it is best governed by one uniform system and therefore requires exclusive legislation by Congress. But a local subject is best handled by the states, which can adapt regulation to the local peculiarities.
  • The Act of 1789 manifests the understanding of Congress that the nature of this subject (pilotage of local ports) does not require its exclusive legislation. That understanding must be upheld, and the statute is constitutional.
  • This case has been widely ignored for the Marshall view that states could not regulate interstate commerce.

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