So said the unanimous Supreme Court in United States v. Linder, 268 U.S. 5 (1925). The opinion was written by McReynolds, and joined by the progressive Justices Brandeis and Holmes, along with the rest of the Court.
At issue was the federal Harrison Anti-Narcotic Law, which taxed opium and coca leaves, and their derivatives. Ostensibly as part of the tax scheme, the Act also required registration of those drugs. A physician lawfully dispensed one tablet of morphine and three tablets of cocaine to a female patient who was an addict. The trial court instructed the jury that Dr. Linder’s actions would be lawful if the drugs were dispensed as painkillers for stomach cancer or an ulcer, but not simply because the patient was an addict. As the Supreme Court observed, the indictment “does not question the doctor’s good faith nor the wisdom or propriety of his action according to medical standards. It does not allege that he dispensed the drugs otherwise than to a patient in the course of his professional practice or for other than medical purposes. The facts disclosed indicate no conscious design to violate the law, no cause to suspect that the recipient intended to sell or otherwise dispose of the drugs, and no real probability that she would not consume them.”
The Court pointed out that “Congress cannot, under the pretext of executing delegated power [here, the Tax Power], pass laws for the accomplishment of objects not intrusted to the federal government. And we accept as established doctrine that any provision of an act of Congress ostensibly enacted under power granted by the Constitution, not naturally and reasonably adapted to the effective exercise of such power, but solely to the achievement of something plainly within power reserved to the states, is invalid and cannot be enforced.” This was supported by a string cite starting with McCulloch v. Maryland.
In the instant case, the power to tax cocaine and morphine carried with it incidental powers to effectuate that tax, and the effectuation of the tax was the sole legitimate use of incidental powers. Incidental powers could not be construed to control a physician’s decision about properly taxed and registered products:
“Obviously, direct control of medical practice in the states is beyond the power of the federal government. Incidental regulation of such practice by Congress through a taxing act cannot extend to matters plainly inappropriate and unnecessary to reasonable enforcement of a revenue measure. The enactment under consideration levies a tax, upheld by this court, upon every person who imports, manufactures, produces, compounds, sells, deals in, dispenses or gives away opium or coca leaves or derivatives therefrom, and may regulate medical practice in the states only so far as reasonably appropriate for or merely incidental to its enforcement. It says nothing of ‘addicts’ and does not undertake to prescribe methods for their medical treatment. They are diseased and proper subjects for such treatment, and we cannot possibly conclude that a physician acted improperly or unwisely or for other than medical purposes solely because he has dispensed to one of them in the ordinary course and in good faith, four small tablets of morphine or cocaine for relief of conditions incident to addiction. What constitutes bona fide medical practice must be determined upon consideration of evidence and attending circumstances. Mere pretense of such practice, of course, cannot legalize forbidden sales, or otherwise nullify valid provisions of the statute, or defeat such regulations as may be fairly appropriate to its enforcement within the proper limitations of a revenue measure.”
Thus, said the Court, Linder was different from previous cases in which the Court had upheld the prosecution of physicians whose prescription of large quantities of drugs was obviously a sham, for no medical purpose, and simply to serve as a conduit for drugs to the general public.
It is not surprising that Linder was relied in several cases finding that Congress had exceeded tax power. U.S. v. Butler (1936); Hopkins Federal Savings & Loan Ass’n v. Cleary (1935); U.S. v. Constantine (1935); Trusler v. Crooks (1926).
Significantly, after 1937, the Court continued to rely on Linder, and in upholding other statutes, to distinguish them from the mis-application of the statute in Linder. “While there has long been recognition of the authority of Congress to obtain incidental social, health or economic advantages from the exercise of constitutional powers, it has been said that such collateral results must be obtained from statutory provisions reasonably adapted to the constitutional objects of the legislation. Linder v. United States.” Cloverleaf Butter v. Patterson (1942).
Linder appears the very first paragraph of a case familiar to many VC readers, United States v. Miller (1939). Citing, inter alia, Linder, the Miller opinion says that the federal tax and tax registration system for certain firearms does not “usurp police power reserved to the States.”
In U.S. v. Kahriger (1953), Linder is a “But see” footnote for this sentence: “Unless there are provisions, extraneous to any tax need, courts are without authority to limit the exercise of the taxing power.” I think that’s a misreading of Linder. The Court’s point in Linder was that micro-managing a physician’s decision about when to write a prescription was in fact “extraneous to any tax need.” So Linder and Kahriger are not inconsistent.
In a case decided after Kahriger, the Court upheld a gambling device tax, expressly distinguishing it from Linder, because the gambling tax is “certainly not a mere ruse designed to invade areas of control reserved to the states.” U.S. v. Five Gambling Devices (1953).
The most important case which relies on Linder is Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority (1936) (upholding the TVA). There, the majority opinion by Chief Justice Hughes affirms that “The Congress may not, ‘under the pretext of executing its powers, pass laws for the accomplishment of objects not intrusted to the government.’ Chief Justice Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 423; Linder v. United States, 268 U.S. 5, 15, 17.”
Justice Brandeis’s concurrence in Ashwander is, to this day, regarded as the most important guidance for the judicial principles of abstention. Number 7 of the “Ashwander principles” is that a court should attempt to construe a statute so as to avoid a constitutional problem, and for this proposition, Justice Brandeis cited Linder, among other cases.
In short, even if one takes the view that cases upholding certain aspects of the New Deal and the Fair Deal enjoy some sort of supra-precedential status that earlier cases do not, Linder is part of the fabric of those privileged cases.