Edwards v. California, 314 U.S. 160 (1941)

2012-06-15 11:29:33

When Californian Fred Edwards drove his destitute brother-in-law from Texas into California in 1939, Edwards violated a California statute criminalizing transportation of indigents into California. State and local governments had long restricted the movement of the poor because poverty had historically been considered a ‘‘moral pestilence.’’ During the Great Depression many poor citizens fled the South and Southwest for more prosperous states such as California, only to be greeted with hostile poor laws and with California’s claim that exclusion was a valid use of its police powers.

In Edwards v. California, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the California statute as unconstitutional, clearly establishing a right to travel across state borders. A majority of the Court argued that California’s attempt to isolate itself from the national problems of poverty and labor migration violated the Commerce Clause, which prohibited states from restricting the movement of people and property across state lines.TheCourt also expressed its support for New Deal antipoverty programs and its rejection of the idea that poverty automatically presumed immorality.

Four justices concurred in the result but argued that by using the Commerce Clause, the Court in effect equated poor citizens with cattle and fruit. These justices instead relied on the constitutional clauses protecting the privileges and immunities of Citizenship. However, the Court had just two years earlier rejected the use of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to limit federal legislative powers, and the majority in Edwards did not want to revisit that issue.


References and Further Reading

  • Katz, Michael B. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books, 1986.
  • Patterson, James T. America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Tribe, Laurence H. American Constitutional Law. Mineola, NY: Foundation, 1988.

See also Right to Travel