Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co.
The fourth Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall, made many of the most momentous decisions in American constitutional law. While he is often remembered for cases like Marbury v. Madison (establishing the Supreme Court as capable of judicially reviewing law) and McCulloch v. Maryland (which established federal supremacy over the states), Marshall also decided a number of other cases that would have far-reaching effects on federal and state laws, as well as the lives of American citizens. Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co. is one of those cases. Originally about a Delaware dam, this 1829 case would lay the foundation for the current American system of federal and state regulation.
How the Case Began
Thompson Willson owned a small ship which he used in several navigable waterways throughout the state of Delaware. He was fully licensed to own and operate a sailing vessel. At one point, he was navigating Blackbird Creek, which had been dammed by Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co., when his ship broke through the dam, causing extensive damage.
The company that had built the dam was licensed to do so by the state of Delaware, and sued Willson for trespassing and the damages done to their work. The case went to the Supreme Court because Willson contended that the state had no right to allow the dam to be built in the first place—he said that only the federal government should be able to regulate whether a dam was built on waterways in any state, due to the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Willson claimed that the federal government's right to regulate traffic on waterways was exclusive, and that the state of Delaware had overstepped its authority by regulating it on its own.
The Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court decided against Willson, the plaintiff. According to the Supreme Court, Willson was partially right—the federal government certainly did have the right to regulate navigable waterways. However, the court noted, it had not actually chosen to do so with Blackbird Creek. This meant that while the United States government did indeed have an interstate commerce power to do what Willson claimed, the power was a dormant one.
In the absence of any federal regulation that would in any way prohibit the dam from having been built, the court ruled that the state of Delaware was free to pass whatever laws it wished in order to regulate the creek and other waterways. However, if the federal government ever chose to use its power, it would no longer be dormant and the state laws would no longer be valid.
Effects of Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co.
When Willson was ruled against, it was a huge victory for states that wanted to create regulations within their own borders. If the case had been decided the other way, states would have been unable to have regulated any conduct that could have affected commerce, even if that conduct was in no way prohibited or regulated by federal law.
In many ways, we have Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co. to thank for things like state environmental laws today. Without the decision that states should be free to pass regulations that affected their own citizens, much of environmental law today would be very different.