U.S. v Carolene Products Co.


U.S. v. Carolene Products Co. was a U.S. Supreme Court case that was best known for “Footnote Four” which laid out a new job description for the Supreme Court. When Carolene Products violated a “filled milk act”, they appealed to the Supreme Court. Though the court ruled the law was constitutional, the famous “footnote four” said that the court would be more deferential toward cases involving economic regulations and turned their focus to strictly reviewing any cases that involved discrete and insular minorities.

First Timeline


In 1923, Congress banned the interstate shipment of filled milk. Congress passed the Filled Milk Act in order to protect the public health from injurious food products. Carolene Products Co. was indicted for violating the federal Act for the interstate shipping of “Milnut”. The company argued against the Filled Milk Act claiming that it violated their Fifth Amendment due process by refusing their “freedom of contract”.  They also claimed that the law was unconstitutional according to the Commerce Clause of Article 1, Section 8 that states that Congress shall have the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

The Justices used multiple prior cases to make their decision in this case. However, a few cases had a much larger influence on their reasoning behind the decision. One important case that the Justices used as precedent is that of The Hebe Co. v. Shaw. In that previous case, the court decided that it was within the bounds 14th Amendment for the legislature to  “forbid the manufacture and sale of a product assumed to be wholesome and nutritive, made of condensed skimmed milk, compounded with coconut oil”. Therefore, in this case the Justices used that precedent to conclude that the legislature also worked within the bounds of the 5th Amendment and did not infringe on the rights of Carolene Products Co. The Court also followed a precedent from the case Carolene Products Co. v. Evaporated Milk Assn. “The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has meanwhile, in another case, upheld the Filled Milk Act as an appropriate exercise of the commerce power in Carolene Products Co. v. Evaporated Milk Assn., 93 F. (2d) 202.”

On top of that, the case of Gibbons v. Ogden provided the precedent for the constitutionality of Congress to regulate food products using their power to regulate interstate commerce. Reid v. Colorado also allowed the Justices to claim “Congress is free to exclude from interstate commerce articles whose use in the states for which they are destined it may reasonably conceive to be injurious to the public health, morals or welfare”.

Procedural History

In 1923, Congress passed the Filled Milk Act.

In 1935, the Carolene Products Company was indicted under the federal Filled Milk Act for the interstate shipping of “Milnut”. The trial court, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, sustained a “demurrer to the indictment” by Carolene Products Co. A demurrer to indictment is “the objection to an indictment that is based on a problem of defect in the indictment”, according to Black’s Law Dictionary.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, and Carolene Products Co. argued that the Filled Milk Act was unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause by violating their implied “freedom of contract”. The Supreme Court heard the arguments of both sides on April 6, 1938.

The Supreme Court decided the case on April 25, 1938 and upheld the Filled Milk Act after applying a rational basis test. Since the Act was supported by “substantial public-health evidence” that was produced by the legislature and it “was not arbitrary or irrational”, it was not unconstitutional (“United States v. Carolene Products Co.”)


“United States v. Carolene Products Co.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

“What Is DEMURRER TO INDICTMENT?” The Law Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.


  • Is the Filled Milk Act within the powers granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause of Article 1 Section 8?
  • Does the act violate the 5th Amendment’s Due Process Clause?

Arguments by Petitioner (or Appellant or Plaintiff or Prosecution)


Arguments by Respondent (or Appellee or Defendant)



The majority opinion was delivered by Justice Stone, who was joined by Justices Charles Hughes, Louis Brandeis, Owen Roberts, and, with the exception of the part marked “Third”, by Justice Hugo Black. Justice Pierce Butler concurred with the majority, and Justice James McReynolds was the only dissent.

In 1938 the United States Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the Filled Milk Act was constitutional after having passed the rational basis test. The act was considered to be well within the powers of the commerce clause, and it was declared that the act did not violate the Due Process clause of the 5th amendment.

Majority Opinion (Stone)

Justice Harlan Stone wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Hughes, Roberts, Brandeis, and Black.

Justice Stone ruled against Carolene Products Co. in the majority opinion. The court upheld the Filled Milk Act citing that Congress is granted the regulation of commerce in Article I, Section 8 as long as the regulation does not infringe upon Fifth Amendment rights. Justice Stone followed the precedent set in Hebe Co. v. Shaw (1919) and ruled that the legislature had a right to prohibit certain articles of food if it is “an appropriate means of preventing injury to the public”.

Justice Stone explained that the court used a rational basis test to determine if the Act was constitutional. A rational basis test is used as a way to determine if Congress had a legitimate and clear reason for passing legislation. If there is valid reason for the legislation then it is considered rational, and the Supreme Court will not review it further. The FIlled Milk Act was considered rational because the legislature had the authority to regulate commerce and, when taking into account public health evidence presented against substituted milk, had an acceptable reason for passing this act. Since the Act was only being used to protect the health of the public, it was not unreasonable for the legislature to enforce it by prohibiting the shipping of Milnut. Furthermore, Carolene Products Co. failed to prove that there was no rational basis for the act.

Concurring Opinion (Butler)

Justice Butler wrote a concurring opinion.

Justice Butler agreed with the majority opinion that Carolene Products Co. violated the Filled Milk Act. However, he believed they did so unintentionally, therefore they could not “establish guilt of the accused”. He went so far as to state that the Company could argue against the allegation that Milnut was a harmful food product, which would make its regulation inessential by the Fifth Amendment.

Full Text of Opinions

Significance / Impact

U.S v. Carolene Products is significant because it introduced levels of scrutiny and led to the modern judicial process. The court struck down the notion of substantive due process with economic regulation. What is particularly impactful about this case is the fourth footnote. Essentially the footnote says that if a piece of economic legislation does not clearly violate the Constitution and Congress appears to have a rational basis for it, then the Supreme Court will not interfere. However, it also mentions that there may be a need to more carefully review cases involving minorities. This footnote basically gave the Supreme Court a new job description. It suggests that the SCOTUS will limit their involvement in reviewing economic regulations, and instead will focus on the civil rights and liberties of citizens.

This case followed the Court’s trend of being a little more relaxed when it came to cases questioning the constitutionality of economic legislation. Justice Stone’s Footnote Four set the tone for the Court’s leniency in such cases as well as for the rigidity that legislation involving insular minorities would be subjected to. The footnote has provided Justices with a precedent that has been used in cases calling for not just a rational basis test, but also for those that require strict scrutiny. The cases in which a strict scrutiny standard have been applied are considered some of the most important Civil Rights cases to date.

Second Timeline

Scholarly Commentary and Debate


Constitutional Provisions

The due process clause of the 5th amendment states, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The commerce clause of article I, section 8 was also in question. This clause gives congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” In US v. Carolene Products Co., the Court ruled that the filled milk act was within congress’ rights and did not violate the due process clause or commerce clause.

Government Law or Action Under Review

The government law under review in this case is The Filled Milk Act of 1923. This act banned the shipment of filled milk.

Important Precedents

  • Hebe Co. v. Shaw
  • Carolene Products Co. v. Evaporated Milk Assn
  • Gibbons v. Ogden
  • Reid v. Colorado
  • United States v. Delaware & Hudson Co.
  • Hope v. United States
  • Clark Distilling Co. v. Western Maryland R. Co.
  • United States v. Hill,
  • McCormick & Co. v. Brown
  • Kentucky Whip & Collar Co. v. Illinois Central R. Co.
  • Seven Cases v. United States
  • Hamilton v. Kentucky

Important Subsequent Cases


  • Korematsu v. US (1944)
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
  • Loving v. Virginia (1967)
  • Craig v. Boren (1976)

Web Resources

“April 25, 1938 – The Case of Carolene Products, Or, The Most Famous Footnote in the History of Law.” Legal Legacy. April 25, 2009. Accessed November/December 2016. https://legallegacy.wordpress.com/2009/04/25/april-25-1938-the-case-of-carolene-products-or-the-most-famous-footnote-in-the-history-of-law/.

Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech. “United States v. Carolene Products Company.” Oyez. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/304us144. Accessed November/December 2016.

“Footnote 4.” The Free Dictionary. Accessed November/December 2016. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Footnote 4.

R, R. “Constitutional Law Prof Blog.” Constitutional Law Prof Blog. Accessed November/December 2016. http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/2011/04/-constitutional-footnotes-a-month-of-footnotes-starting-with-the-most-famous-footnote.html.

Rakove, Jack. “Why a Footnote (or, The Significance of Carolene Products).” Lecture, Stanford. May 21, 2015. Accessed November/December 2016.

“Strict Scrutiny.” YouTube. October 27, 2014. Accessed November/December 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I87Ju2bZ8bM.

  • Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I87Ju2bZ8bM

“United States v. Carolene Products Co.” Casebriefs United States v Carolene Products Co Comments. Accessed November/December 2016. http://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/constitutional-law/constitutional-law-keyed-to-cohen/the-due-process-contract-and-just-compensation-clauses-and-the-review-of-the-reasonableness-of-legislation/united-states-v-carolene-products-co-2/.

“United States v. Carolene Products Co.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Accessed November/December 2016. https://www..law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/304/144

“United States v. Carolene Products Co.” United States v. Carolene Products Co. | The Law School Guys. Accessed November/December 2016. http://thelawschoolguys.com/law-students/case-briefs-bank/constitutional-law-ii/united-states-v-carolene-products-co/.

“United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144 (1938) -.” MiB Law. August 11, 2011. Accessed December 11, 2016. http://www.miblaw.com/lawschool/united-states-v-carolene-products-co/.

Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

  • Powell, Lewis F. “”Carolene Products” Revisited.” Columbia Law Review 82, no. 6 (1982): 1087-092.
  • Lusky, Louis. “Footnote Redux: A “Carolene Products” Reminiscence.” Columbia Law Review 82, no. 6 (1982): 1093-109.
  • Ackerman, Bruce A. “Beyond “Carolene Products”” Harvard Law Review 98, no. 4 (1985): 713-46.
  • Strauss, David A. “Is Carolene Products Obsolete.”University of Illinois Law Review 2010.4 (2010): 1251-1270
  • Gilman, Felix. “The Famous Footnote Four: A History of the Carolene Products Footnote.” South Texas Law Review 46.1 (2004): 163-244.


  • Fall 2016: Vance Foster
  • Fall 2016: Mason Pike
  • Fall 2016: Erica Underdown
  • Fall 2016: Tatiana Zapata

Tasks for Future Contributors

  • Arguments by Petitioner (or Appellant or Plaintiff or Prosecution
  • Arguments by Respondent (or Appellee or Defendant)
  • Scholarly Commentary and Debate