Nebbia v. New York Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Nebbia, owner of a grocery store, was convicted for selling milk at a price below the minimum fixed by a New York statute.

Facts of the case

To combat the effects of the Great Depression, New York adopted a Milk Control Law in 1933 which established a board to set a minimum retail price for milk. It set the price of a quart of milk at nine cents. Nebbia, a store owner, violated the law by offering two quarts of milk and a five-cent loaf of bread for a total of 18 cents.

Question

Does the statute deprive Nebbia of due process of law?

Answer

Justice Roberts’ opinion. No, the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be invoked to resist necessary and appropriate exertion of the police power.
The Court held that the milk industry was not a public utility and that the statute was not enacted to prevent a monopoly or monopolistic practice. However, the due process clause makes no mention of sales or of prices any more than it speaks of business or contracts or buildings or other incidents of property. The state may regulate other elements of manufacture or trade with incidental effect upon price, but the state is incapable of directly controlling the price itself. This view was negated in Munn v. Illinois.
The question is whether circumstances vindicate the challenged regulation as a reasonable exertion of governmental authority or condemn it as arbitrary or discriminatory? Whether or not a business is for the public interest or public use is not a valid criteria to determine whether price control legislation is constitutional. The state may regulate a business in any of its aspects, including the prices to be charged for the products or commodities it sells so long as they have a reasonable relation to a proper legislative purpose. They can be neither arbitrary nor discriminatory.

Conclusion

The Court held that the allegation of an equal protection violation was not well founded because there was no showing that the order placed defendant at a disadvantage or affected him adversely. As the dairy industry was one subject to regulation in the public interest, there was no constitutional principle barring the state from correcting existing deficiencies by legislation fixing prices. In light of the fact that the board’s order was not unreasonable or arbitrary and that constitutional due process protections did not prohibit the state from fixing the selling price of milk, defendant’s conviction was appropriate.

  • Case Brief: 1934
  • Petitioner: Nebbia
  • Respondent: New York
  • Decided by: Hughes Court

Citation: 291 US 502 (1934)
Argued: Dec 4 – 5, 1933
Decided: Mar 5, 1934