Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Mellon (1923)


nostandingMassachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447 (1923), was a U.S. Supreme Court Case that renounced the notion that any individual who pays taxes holds appropriate grounds to file a lawsuit contrary to a taxing organization, if they perceive the organization apportioned funds in an inappropriate manner; this concept encapsulates taxpayer standing. The Maternity Act passed by Congress in 1921, is the important statute that was challenged in this case. This Act delivered grants to states, which consented to instituting programs designed to maintain the health and well-being of mothers and babies; it aimed at reducing infant and mother death rate, in addition to other aspects of prenatal and postnatal care. This case was amalgamated with Frothingham v. Mellon; the plaintiffs from these cases, namely Frothingham & Massachusetts pursued the preclusion of specific expenses by the Federal Government which they regarded as a desecration of their Tenth Amendment Rights. They claimed that these expenditures were made possible through a supplemental taxation on the people. The Supreme Court disallowed their lawsuits by asserting that the plaintiffs were not victims of specified harm in relation to their claims of the unconstitutionality of the act. The Court stated:

We have no power per se to review and annul acts of Congress on the ground that they are unconstitutional. The question may be considered only when the justification for some direct injury suffered or threatened, presenting a justiciable issue, is made to rest upon such an act…. The party who invokes the power must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.” (Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447)

This case is widely regarded as the preliminary proceeding that introduced the policy of standing; before this, the principle fundamentally encompassed individuals’ private perception of injury, providing them an inherent ability to challenge governmental spending through taxation of the general public. In time, the Court would establish an exemption to this statute in Flast v. Cohen. However future cases displayed that the overarching decree from Frothingham v. Mellon and Massachusetts v. Mellon were generally applicable with Flast being a distinctive deviation.

First Timeline


Jeannette Rankin of Montana first sponsored the legislation in 1918. (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

By the turn of the 1920s, the Women’s Rights Movement had embraced a prominent role in American political and social life, sparked by the success of the women’s suffrage movement. The promulgation of a variety of women’s issues, including the high maternity (25%) and infant mortality (33%) rates, facilitated the enactment of the Shepherd-Towner Act of 1921 — popularly known as the Maternity Act – which in essence became the inaugural social-welfare program in U.S. history. The Maternity Act enabled the disbursement of federal funding to participating states in support of programs catering to low-income women and children’s maternity and healthcare needs. The Federal Government provided funding to states consenting to and implementing provisions protecting the health of mothers and infants by reducing maternity and infant mortality. A bureau was created to ensure full compliance by state agencies and approve disbursements. Proponents of the bill, including then President Warren G. Harding, managed to garner popular and legislative support, subsequently allocating a 279-39 vote in the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, there were critics who argued that the enactment of the act was representative of a form of socialism, violated parent-child relationships, and was a usurpation of legislative power.

Procedural History

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts V. Mellon comprised of two cases: in the first, the US Supreme Court had original jurisdiction; the second ascended from the state courts through the Federal District Court of Appeals and finally to the US Supreme Court. Similarities in both cases enabled the Court to combine the two.
In the first case, Massachusetts petitioned the Court, challenging the constitutionality of the 1921 Maternity Act. Recognizing that a state was a party to the controversy, SCOTUS had original jurisdiction and granted cert.
The Frothingham Case, on the contrary, received certiorari through the appellate process. A taxpayer suit, the case began in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia where it was originally dismissed. Upon appeal, the Federal District Court, however, found in favor of the plaintiff, asserting that a taxpayer had a legal interest in the appropriate dispensation of allocations by municipalities. The decision contributed to a discord among the lower courts prompting SCOTUS to issue certiorari to harmonize the conflict.


Mother And Children In Washington Park, 1928. (Felix Koch/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images)

1.) Can an individual taxpayer sue a municipally in order to affect the disbursement of allocations from taxes based on that individual’s contribution?

2.) Does the Supreme Court of the United States have the authority to preemptively inhibit the inherent rights of another branch of government to act within its authority?

3.) Was the Federal Government in violation of the 10th Amendment when passing the Maternity Act of 1921?


Unable to establish jurisdiction, the supreme court disposed of the case without considering the question of the constitutionality of the enactment of the Maternity Act of 1921 by Congress, citing that no direct injury was suffered by the appellants relative to the enactment of the act. Justice Sutherland wrote the opinion for the court, explaining how neither the State of Massachusetts and the citizens it represented nor the appellant in the Forthingham case were able to successfully establish standing.

Majority Opinion Summary

In the first case, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts v Mellon, the court concluded that neither the State of Massachusetts nor the citizenry it represented in the case sustained injury or presented a justiciable controversy. Whereas the commission of the Maternity Act elicited voluntary participation, exclusive of mandates, the statute did not compromise the power of the state vis-a-vis a usurpation of Congressional authority beyond Constitutional constraints as argued by the appellants. Furthermore, Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution provides SCOTUS with original jurisdiction in cases where a State is a party to the controversy. The conditions, however, are twofold and absolute: the State must be a party; there must be a controversy. The Court concluded that while the former was inherent, the latter was nonexistent. The State of Massachusetts had the freedom to accept or reject the employment of the Maternity Act within its territories, henceforth discounting the presence of a justiciable controversy and thus circumventing the jurisdictional requirements of the Court. In sum, the appellants had no standing due to nonexistent injury, and the flexibility to not participate which alleviated controversy.

Subsequently, a jurisdictional discord derailed the Forthingham case, however, in a slightly dissimilar context. The Court concluded the plaintiff’s petition did not establish a judicial controversy, rather it requested a usurpation of factitious authority held by the Courts over the States. In essence, the Court did not possess the authority to preemptively intervene to inhibit the inherent right of the State to participate, notwithstanding the merits of the Maternity Act. Additionally, the inability to definitively determine individual injury suffered in general taxation and the precedent that would derive from such discourse inhibit the plaintiff from establishing standing before the Court.

Ultimately, the decision to dispose of the case rested in a want for jurisdiction, without finding resolve relative to the constitutionality of the power of Congress to enact the Maternity Act of 1921.

Summary of Concurring Opinion

Mr. Justice Thompson and Mr. Justice Story concurred with the opinion of the court but felt the justiciability of the case was lacking because of different reasons. In regards to the first case, the court cannot give an abstract opinion of the constitutionality of a state law if it is not in the act of threatening any rights falling under the jurisdiction of the supreme court. This case fails to provide any questions of rights in this respect and instead brings forth issues of political power, sovereignty and government. The justices referred to the cases of Cherokee Nation v Georgia and Georgia v Stanton in their explanation. It is also clear that the right held by the state to protect its citizens against unconstitutional acts by the federal government cannot be applied to this case through the principle of parens patriae.

When referring to the Frothingham case their reasoning is more or less the same with the addition of the fact that cases where a taxpayer is joining an execution of a federal appropriation act on the basis its alleged invalidity which results in illegal taxation have historically never been heard by the supreme court in this nature. This stems from invalid taxations being a matter of the public and not of the individual. Justice Thompson and Justice Story concluded their reasoning with the fact that our government is reliant on the separation of powers and because of this, the court is unable to hear and decide a case questioning the constitutionality of an act of congress without any justiciable issues that is based on an actual or threatened injury. This case lacks any semblance of this requirement therefore, the court does not have jurisdiction to decide it.

Full Text Of Opinion


In Massachusetts v. Mellon (1923), the supreme court dismissed the case stating that an individual taxpayer cannot challenge government spending based on the individual’s tax contributions. The impact of the case established a precedent for all future taxpayer suits except for the circumstances outlined in Flast v. Cohen. In Flast v. Cohen, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Flast and stated that the individual taxpayer has the right to sue the government when funds are being spent inappropriately.

Second Timeline

Scholarly Commentary & Debate


Constitutional Provisions

In Article III, section 2 of the United States Constitution, it is stated that the Court jurisdiction ranges from “controversies between a State and citizens of another State”.  The Constitution also explicitly states in this section that the Court possesses original jurisdiction “in all cases . . . in which a State shall be party.” Granting jurisdiction to the Supreme Court, simply because a state is a party, is not the intended outcome of this; this solely applies in circumstances in which a party to a proceeding of unavoidable judicial action despite the information not being backed by evidence. Illegitimate proceedings are out of bounds of a review of the constitutional bestowment.

Major Statute(s)

  • Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, also known as the “Maternity Act”

Important Precedent

  • Chisholm v. Georgia, (1793)
  • Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831)
  • Kentucky v. Dennison (1861)
  • Gaines v. Thompson, (1868)
  • Georgia v. Stanton (1868)
  • Texas v. White, (1869)
  • Florida v. Anderson (1875)
  • State of Alabama v. Burr (1885)
  • Wisconsin v. Pelican Insurance Co (1888)
  • Bradfield v. Roberts (1899)
  • Missouri v. Illinois, (1901)
  • Millard v. Roberts (1906)
  • Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. (1907)
  • Wilson v. Shaw (1907)

Important Subsequent Cases

  • First National Bank v. Missouri (1924)
  • Flast v. Cohen (1968)
  • Schlesinger v. Reservists To Stop The War (1974)

Web Resources

Cuccinelli, Kenneth T., Duncan Getchell, and Wesley Getchell. “State Sovereign Standing: Often Overlooked, but Not Forgotten.” LegalTrac. January 01, 2012. Available here.

Hein, William S. “Commonwealth of Massachusetts V. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, Et Al. Frothingham v. Same.” February 01, 2000. Available here.

Hein, William S. Massachusetts V. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, Et Al. Frothingham v. Same. February 01, 2000. Available here.

Newell, Phil. “Law School Case Briefs | Legal Outlines | Study Materials.” Massachusetts v. Mellon Case Brief. December 7, 2013. Available here.

Rice, Daniel W. Massachusetts V. Mellon.” March 04, 2015. Available here.

Rinkle, Ralf. “Frothingham V. Mellon & Massachusetts V. Mellon, 1923, Held Only When Some Direct Injury Presents A Justiciable Issue Can Courts Pass Opinions On Constitutionality Of Acts Of Congress Whether Asked By States or Individuals.” Frothingham V. Mellon & Massachusetts V. Mellon, 1923. April 5, 1995. Available here.

Sandefur, Timothy. “First Things First: Obamacare and Standing – PLF Liberty Blog.” PLF Liberty Blog. March 14, 2012. Available here.

Winter, Steven. “Massachusetts v. Mellon.” October 17, 2015. Available here.

Academic Books, Articles & Law Reviews

Burdick, Charles K., and Andrew W. Mellon. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Plaintiff, v. Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, Et Al., Defendants. Brief on Behalf of the Association of Land-grant Colleges, as Amicus Curiae, in Support of Motion to Dismiss Bill of Complaint. 1st ed. Vol. 1.Series 1. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1922.

Corwin, E. S. (1923). THE SPENDING POWER OF CONGRESS–APROPOS THE MATERNITY ACT. Harvard Law Review, 36(5), 40-74.

McManus, Edgar J., and Tara Helfman. Liberty and Union: A Constitutional History of the United States. 1st ed. Vol. 2. Series 1. London: Taylor & Francis, 2014.

Vile, John R. Essential Supreme Court Decisions: Summaries of Leading Cases in U.S. Constitutional Law. 16th ed. Vol. 1. Series 1. Lanham, MD: ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD, 2014.


Makieshia Cooper, Jonathan Wellingson, KayLynne Kratzer, and Ivrol Hines

Tasks For Future Contributors

Given more time, we would have searched for more scholarly or peer reviewed articles or books related to the case of Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Mellon.