United States v. Butler

Following is the case brief for United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1 (1936)

Case Summary of United States v. Butler:

  • In 1933, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act to stabilize agricultural production in the country and help farmers in need.  The Act allowed a tax on certain products so the funds could help other farmers.
  • One farmer who was presented with a tax claim sued in federal court.
  • The District Court ordered the farmer to pay the tax, but the First Circuit reversed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the First Circuit.  It held that Congress exceeded its taxing and spending power with the Act, and that regulation and control of agriculture is within the authority of the states, not Congress.

United States v. Butler Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.  The purpose of the Act was to stabilize agricultural production.  The Act essentially placed a tax on certain agricultural commodities.  The funds from the tax were then redistributed to farmers who promised to reduce their acreage.  Congress passed the legislation pursuant to its taxing power, noting that it was to promote the “general welfare.”

Specifically, in Butler’s case, the Secretary of Agriculture decided that one of the crops to be taxed should be cotton.  Accordingly, the Secretary presented a tax claim to Butler and other respondents as receivers of the Hoosac Mills Corp.  The respondents sued, asking that the court disallow the claim.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court found that the taxes were valid and ordered that they be paid.
  • The First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the order.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 a proper exercise of Congress’ taxing power?  No.


The decision of the First Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Congress cannot use its taxing power to control activity that was within the complete authority of the states.


The Agricultural Adjustment Act invades the rights that are reserved to the States.  Control and regulation of the production of agricultural commodities is not a power delegated to Congress.  Further, Congress’ attempt to coercively use the tax and spending power to do that which the Constitution does not allow Congress to do proves that the Act is unconstitutional.

Dissenting Opinion (Stone):

The country is in dire straits with regard to the agricultural industry.  Congress should be allowed to use its power to tax and spend in order to relieve a nationwide maladjustment by using conditional gifts of money.


United States v. Butler is an important case because it provides an example in which Congress overstepped its authority under its taxing power.  A good deal of the Court’s modern jurisprudence surrounds Congress’ use the its commerce power.  It is important to remember that the Court has, from time to time, also recognized limits on its taxing and spending powers.

Student Resources:

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