Validity of the Eighteenth Amendment

January 26, 1931

Report Outline
The Prohibition Issue Before the Supreme Court
Decision of Lower Court in Pending Prohibition Case
Arguments of Government in Support of Amendment
Arguments Denying Validity of 18th Amendment
Arguments of Friends of the Court

The Prohibition Issue Before the Supreme Court

The question of the legal validity of the 18th amendment and, hence, of the constitutionality of the National Prohibition Act and its enforcement, is raised in the case of United States v. Sprague and Howey, now awaiting decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. Oral arguments in the case were heard by the Supreme Court on January 21, 1931, and a decision by the Court is believed to be imminent. Public interest in the constitutional character of prohibition has been enhanced, meanwhile, by the report of the Wickersham Commission and the suggestion of a majority of its members that the language of the 18th amendment be revised so as to give Congress the power to “regulate or prohibit” the traffic in alcoholic beverages.

The case of United States v. Sprague and Howey came to the Supreme Court on appeal from a decision of Judge William Clark in the federal district court of New Jersey. On December 16, 1930, the lower court held in this case that the 18th amendment was invalid and that the Volstead Act was therefore unconstitutional and void. The district court argued that the 18th amendment should have been ratified by conventions, instead of by legislatures, in three-fourths of the states. Test cases involving the same issue were decided adversely to the defendants by the district court at Boston on December 29, 1930 (U. S. v. Sadowy) and by the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the second circuit at New York on January 5, 1931 (U. S. v. Thibault), and have not been appealed. Thus, until the Supreme Court speaks, the 18th amendment is invalid in New Jersey and valid in the remainder of the United States.

Changes in Supreme Court Since National Prohibition Cases

Special interest attaches to the forthcoming decision of the Supreme Court because of the changes which have taken place in its personnel since the question of the validity of the prohibition amendment was last passed upon by that tribunal. In the National Prohibition Cases, decided in June, 1920, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the validity of the 18th amendment and the constitutionality of the Volstead Act. Four members of the Court as then composed—Holmes, Brandeis, McReynolds, and Van Devanter—remain on the bench today. Of the five new members of the Court, Chief Justice Hughes announced at the opening of oral argument that he would not participate in the decision of the pending case, because he had filed a brief as amicus curiae in the National Prohibition Cases. The other four members, new since 1920, are Butler, Sutherland, Stone, and Roberts. If each of these four justices should vote to sustain Judge Clark, and the four who took part in the decision of the National Prohibition Cases should vote as they did in 1920 to uphold the validity of the 18th amendment, the division of the Supreme Court on the pending case would be 4 to 4, in which event, under a rule of the Court, the decision of the lower court would not be reversed.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Dec. 21, 1984  America's New Temperance Movement
Nov. 03, 1943  Liquor Supply and Control
Oct. 04, 1933  Liquor Control after Repeal
Feb. 02, 1933  Preparations for Prohibition Repeal
Aug. 11, 1932  Prohibition After the 1932 Elections
May 16, 1932  Prohibition in the 1932 Conventions
Sep. 25, 1931  Economic Effects of Prohibition Repeal
Feb. 25, 1931  The States and the Prohibition Amendment
Jan. 26, 1931  Validity of the Eighteenth Amendment
Oct. 15, 1930  The Liquor Problem in Politics
Sep. 02, 1929  Reorganization of Prohibition Enforcement
Oct. 31, 1928  Social and Economic Effects of Prohibition
Aug. 07, 1928  Liquor Control in the United States
Apr. 23, 1927  The Prohibition Issue in National Politics
Jun. 05, 1926  Prohibition in the United States
Apr. 21, 1926  Prohibition in Foreign Countries
Jan. 15, 1924  Four Years Under the Eighteenth Amendment
Drug Abuse
Supreme Court History and Decisions
U.S. Constitution