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Police Power Explained

Police Power Explained


The Constitution of the United States grants the federal government the power to regulate commerce and establish laws, but it also grants each state the right to enact legislation for the safety, health, and welfare of its citizens. This power, known as the police power, has been a subject of numerous Supreme Court decisions, establishing the limitations and scope of state authority. This article will explore the Supreme Court’s police power and how it relates to federalism and individual rights.

The Doctrine of Police Power

The notion of police power has its roots in the English common law and emerged as an essential principle of American constitutionalism in the early 19th century. The term “police power” does not refer to law enforcement but relates to the inherent authority that states possess to legislate for the general welfare of their citizens. It grants the government power to create laws for a range of purposes, such as protecting public health and safety, preserving the environment, zoning of land, administering licensing of businesses, and regulating the economy.

The Supreme Court recognizes that police power is firmly rooted in the U.S. Constitution, although it is not explicitly mentioned. The Tenth Amendment states that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states. In recognizing this power, the Supreme Court has issued numerous important decisions that relate to the scope and limitations of the police power.

Supreme Court Police Power Decisions

Over the years, the Supreme Court has issued numerous decisions on the police power, and several of these decisions have had significant impacts on the functioning of government and the protection of individuals’ rights. Here are some of the fundamental decisions made by the Supreme Court on the police power:

Munn v. Illinois (1877)

In Munn v. Illinois, a case involving the regulation of grain warehouses, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of states to regulate private businesses that affect the public welfare such as utilities, railroads, and grain elevators. The Court stated that businesses impacted by the police power, such as Munn’s grain warehouse, are considered public utilities and must submit to public service regulation.

Lochner v. New York (1905)

In Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court rejected a state regulation that limited bakery employees to working ten hours a day, claiming that the law violated the bakers’ Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court found that the regulation infringed the bakers’ right to contract and formally established the “freedom of contract” doctrine. Lochner proved a contentious case, as labor rights supporters saw the decision as an embattlement of the public welfare through labor regulations and overturned it in later decisions.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut statute prohibiting the use of contraceptives, stating that it violated individuals’ right to marital privacy. The decision led to the establishment of substantive due process, which is the notion that the Constitution’s concept of liberty extends to specific areas of personal privacy.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Roe v. Wade is perhaps one of the Supreme Court’s most significant and well-known decisions in relation to police power. The case held up the constitutional right to privacy involves a woman’s right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. This landmark decision established that the police power of states has limitations as the right to privacy is considered to be an essential aspect of individual liberty.

Walker v. United States (1904)

In Walker v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of the government to require military service during times of war. The court, in this case, stated that the government could accomplish tasks through its police authority, such as the “unlimited right to draft citizens onto the battlefield in times of war” as long as it relates to a significant public interest.


The Supreme Court has provided essential decisions on the police power, which is an integral part of American federalism. These decisions have established that states have the power to enact legislation for their citizens’ safety, health, and welfare, but this power is not boundless. The police power is subject to the limitations imposed by the Bill of Rights, which protects individual basic rights such as liberty and freedom.

The Supreme Court’s police power authority is essential to American constitutionalism. Each state has its own unique public policy issues, which makes state-regulated police power organizations vital to establishing laws for the benefit of individual citizens. While the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right of states to regulate within their police power authority, the court has also acknowledged the limits of this authority, particularly in instances of violating citizens’ fundamental rights.

The power has seen a range of interpretations over time, and the principles of this doctrine are at the heart of political and legal conflicts in the country. Policy makers still face legal issues involving state-level police power, but continue to uphold the principles of the doctrine that underpin the United State’s formation – coexisting federal and state political systems.

Police power is representative of the way in which individual states may regulate citizen and non-citizen behavior and conduct. It proceeds with the express purpose of ensuring that the public’s welfare is maintained, as well as its general health and safety.

State constitutions usually provide the limitations by which police power is instituted. It stems all the way back to the feudal systems of Europe. The exhibition of police power may be seen in a number of ways. These include: the creation of laws and the imposing of these laws by physical force or other such procedures.

Conflicts that usually arise as a result of the existence of police power are those which concern the beliefs that such physical force may not actually be in legal concurrence within the realm of the United States Constitution. Federal courts are usually confronted with issues of civil liberties which come into question, presenting serious consequences in relation to the institution of police power.

In accordance with Nineteenth Century legislation, Federal courts ruled that despite the overseeing powers of the Federal Government, states possessed sole control over the handling of police power. This system works to deal with situations such as that concerning property considerations, public health issues, laws concerning heinous crimes, as well as various other aspects of law.

This may be seen as is exhibited within the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This Amendment states that powers not assigned to the Federal Government are to be left to that of the State as well as the general public. Police powers are that which are set forth in accordance with State constitutions having precedence, but also with some limitations.

One such case is that of Lawrence v. Texas. In this Supreme Court case, Federal courts stated that “intimate” situations not be subject to police power aside from if it presented harm in relation to the health and overall safety of those involved. A case that demonstrated how local authorities may abuse their power includes that of Mahony v. Township. This involved the township instituting “zoning ordinances,” which then were deemed an illegal use of police power. This was due to the fact that a complete barring of private gas wells was seen as without real reasoning since it had no actual effect over concerns such as the health, safety, and welfare of the whole town. This case example shows just how even a system of police power may also go too far regardless of its legal intent.