Aaron B. Cooley v. The Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia

53 U.S. (12 How.) 299, 13 L.Ed. 996 (1852)

Quick Summary

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Aaron B. Cooley (plaintiff) sued the Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia (defendant) over a Pennsylvania statute mandating payment for local pilotage services. The dispute centered on whether this requirement violated constitutional provisions governing commerce.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined that such state regulations on pilotage did not infringe upon federal powers and were therefore constitutionally permissible. The Court upheld the validity of the Pennsylvania law, citing historical precedent and practical considerations in maritime navigation.

Facts of the Case

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Aaron B. Cooley (plaintiff), a ship master not residing in Pennsylvania, initiated a lawsuit against the Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia (defendant) challenging the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania law. This law mandated that all ships entering or exiting the Port of Philadelphia employ a local pilot or pay a fine equivalent to half the pilot fee, which would support retired local pilots.

Cooley contended that his constitutional rights were infringed upon by this requirement to pay for a service he did not utilize. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania sustained the state’s regulations, prompting Cooley to escalate the matter to the United States Supreme Court.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. The Pennsylvania law was challenged in state court by Aaron B. Cooley.
  2. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld the state regulations.
  3. Cooley then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the Pennsylvania law requiring ships to employ local pilots or pay a fine is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and other provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

Rule of Law

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The power to regulate commerce includes navigation and may be subject to regulation by both state and federal governments depending on the nature of the subject matter.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Court reasoned that pilotage is an integral part of maritime navigation and commerce. The necessity for diverse regulations, tailored to the unique conditions of each port, indicates that pilotage does not demand exclusive federal regulation.

The Court observed that pilotage services and their associated fees are distinct from general duties on imports, exports, or tonnage, which fall within federal jurisdiction for uniform regulation. Consequently, the Court concluded that the Pennsylvania law was not in conflict with the federal Constitution’s provisions relating to imposts, duties, or tonnage, nor did it give preference to one state’s ports over another’s.

Furthermore, the Court considered the historical context and longstanding practice of states regulating pilotage since the founding of the nation. The Act of 1789 by Congress acknowledged state authority over pilotage unless superseded by federal legislation. This acknowledgment, coupled with the absence of federal legislation to the contrary, affirmed that states retained some authority over pilotage regulation within their jurisdictions.


Conclusion Icon

The United States Supreme Court held that the Pennsylvania law did not contravene the Commerce Clause or other relevant provisions of the Constitution. Therefore, it was deemed a valid exercise of the state’s power to regulate matters of local concern such as pilotage.

Key Takeaways

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  1. State laws regulating pilotage are not precluded by the Commerce Clause if they address local necessities and do not require uniform federal regulation.
  2. The historical practice of allowing states to regulate pilotage was upheld as consistent with the Constitution.
  3. The decision affirmed that certain aspects of commerce, like pilotage, may be governed by both state and federal laws depending on their nature and impact on interstate and international commerce.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What determines whether a federal law preempts a state law in areas of concurrent jurisdiction?

In areas of concurrent jurisdiction, federal law preempts state law when it manifests a clear and palpable conflict with federal objectives or when Congress indicates an intention to occupy the entire field exclusively. The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution establishes that federal law is the ‘supreme Law of the Land,’ thus preempting conflicting state legislation. The courts look for explicit preemption, where the federal statute expressly states its intention, or implicit preemption, where such intent is inferred from the structure and purpose of the federal regulation.

  • For example: If Congress passes a law requiring standardized nutritional labels on food products, this would preempt state laws imposing divergent labeling requirements.

How do courts distinguish between local and national interests when assessing state regulations under the Commerce Clause?

Courts distinguish between local and national interests by evaluating the nature and scope of the regulated activity. If regulation predominantly affects intrastate commerce with incidental effects on interstate commerce, it may be considered a matter of local concern. However, if regulation significantly impacts interstate commerce, or requires national uniformity, it indicates a matter of national interest. The court will determine if state regulations impose an undue burden on interstate commerce or create inconsistencies with overarching federal policies.

  • For example: Imposing local safety standards for manufacturing facilities may be a local interest if the effect on interstate commerce is minimal compared to comprehensive federal vehicle safety standards devised for manufacturers nationwide.

In what situations can state laws regulate activities that inherently involve interstate or international concerns?

State laws can regulate activities that inherently involve interstate or international concerns when these regulations address issues specific to the locality and when there is no existing federal standard governing the matter. Activities that benefit from varied local responses due to differing regional circumstances allow for state intervention without overstepping federal authority. Additionally, when federal law explicitly permits states to enact their own regulations in certain areas, states can legislate on those matters.

  • For example: States may institute environmental standards for industries within their borders that have downstream effects on other states as long as such regulations do not interfere with federally mandated pollution controls.


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