Edwards v. California (1941)

A statute of California making it a misdemeanor for anyone knowingly to bring or assist in bringing into the State a nonresident “indigent person” held invalid as an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce.

Citation: 314 U.S. 160 (1941)
Date decided: Nov 24, 1941
Longer case name: Edwards v. People of the State of California
Law type: Criminal
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: California
Topic(s):Interstate commerce, Paupers as citizens, and Right to travel
Lists:Important cases and zGreatest hits (future)
Attorneys:Mr. Samuel Slaff, of New York City, for appellant. (Neighborhood Legal Services of DC)
Others involved:Mr. John H. Tolan, of Oakland, Cal., for the Select Committee of the House of Representatives of the United States, appointed pursuant to House Resolution No. 63, April 22, 1940, to investigate Interstate Migration of Destitute Citizens, as amicus curiae by special leave of Court.
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Case Importance

From Marie A. Failinger, The Poverty Law Canon: Exploring the Major Cases, University of Michigan Press, 2016: “Edwards is rich with significance for the circuitous doctrinal path of the constitutional right to travel, which has been thoroughly analyzed by many scholars. Here, I mean not to retrace those doctrinal steps but to suggest a different, additional enduring importance of the case. Edwards rejected a century of case law (which itself drew on hundreds of years of British common law and statutes) that affirmed states’ police power to exclude “paupers, vagrants, and convicts” and reiterated that paupers were a “moral pestilence.” “Edwards thus marks a critical step in the journey of the most indigent Americans to citizenship. Although it would take decades more for the poor to approach real citizenship and for states to revise or repeal settlement and residence laws, prohibitions on voting or marrying, vagrancy laws, and other repressive measures against the poor, after Edwards, the term “pauper” evolved into what it is today: a mere synonym, albeit an antiquated one, for an indigent. Edwards is the case, therefore, that transformed the poorest Americans from “paupers” —­ a distinct legal category of those subject to universal opprobrium and with little claim to rights —­ into people.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



1. Transportation of persons from one State into another is interstate commerce. P. 314 U. S. 172.

2. A statute of California making it a misdemeanor for anyone knowingly to bring or assist in bringing into the State a nonresident “indigent person” held invalid as an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce. P. 314 U. S. 174.

For the purposes of this case, it is assumed that the term “indigent person,” though not confined to the physically or mentally incapacitated, includes only persons who are presently destitute of property and without resources to obtain the necessities of life, and who have no relatives or friends able and willing to support them. P. 314 U. S. 172.

How far the regulatory power of Congress extends over such transportation, and whether the attempted state regulation is also prohibited by other provisions of the Constitution, are questions not decided in this case and upon which the majority of the Court expresses no opinion. Pp. 314 U. S. 176, 314 U.S. 177.

3. Remarks in New York v. Miln, 11 Pet. 102, and other cases concerning the power of a State to exclude “paupers” and considered, and the meaning of that term discussed. P. 314 U. S. 176.


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of California, which affirmed the conviction of Edwards under a California statute declaring it to be a misdemeanor for any person to bring, or assist in bringing, into the State any nonresident of the State, knowing him to be an indigent person. The court below was the highest court to which an appeal could be taken under the laws of California. The case was argued here, and reargument was ordered, at the 1940 Term, 313 U.S. 545.

From the opinion

MR. JUSTICE BYRNES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The facts of this case are simple, and are not disputed. Appellant is a citizen of the United States and a resident of California. In December, 1939, he left his home in Marysville, California, for Spur, Texas, with the intention of bringing back to Marysville his wife’s brother, Frank Duncan, a citizen of the United States and a resident of Texas.

Page 314 U. S. 171

When he arrived in Texas, appellant learned that Duncan had last been employed by the Works Progress Administration. Appellant thus became aware of the fact that Duncan was an indigent person, and he continued to be aware of it throughout the period involved in this case. The two men agreed that appellant should transport Duncan from Texas to Marysville in appellant’s automobile. Accordingly, they left Spur on January 1, 1940, entered California by way of Arizona on January 3, and reached Marysville on January 5. When he left Texas, Duncan had about $20. It had all been spent by the time he reached Marysville. He lived with appellant for about ten days until he obtained financial assistance from the Farm Security Administration. During the ten-day interval, he had no employment.

In Justice Court a complaint was filed against appellant under § 2615 of the Welfare and Institutions Code of California, which provides:

“Every person, firm or corporation or officer or agent thereof that brings or assists in bringing into the State any indigent person who is not a resident of the State, knowing him to be an indigent person, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

On demurrer to the complaint, appellant urged that the Section violated several provisions of the Federal Constitution. The demurrer was overruled, the cause was tried, appellant was convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment in the county jail, and sentence was suspended.

On appeal to the Superior Court of Yuba County, the facts as stated above were stipulated. The Superior Court, although regarding as “close” the question of the validity of the Section, felt “constrained to uphold the statute as a valid exercise of the police power of the State of California.” Consequently, the conviction was affirmed. No appeal to a higher state court was open to appellant. We noted probable jurisdiction early last term, and later ordered reargument (313 U.S. 545), which has been held.

At the threshold of our inquiry, a question arises with respect to the interpretation of § 2615. On reargument, the Attorney General of California has submitted an exposition of the history of the Section, which reveals that statutes similar, though not identical, to it have been in effect in California since 1860. (See Cal.Stat. (1860) 213; Cal.Stat. (1901) 636; Cal.Stat. (1933) 2005). Neither under these forerunners nor under § 2615 itself does the term “indigent person” seem to have been accorded an authoritative interpretation by the California courts. The appellee claims for the Section a very limited scope. It urges that the term “indigent person” must be taken to include only persons who are presently destitute of property and without resources to obtain the necessities of life, and who have no relatives or friends able and willing to support them. It is conceded, however, that the term is not confined to those who are physically or mentally incapacitated. While the generality of the language of the Section contains no hint of these limitations, we are content to assign to the term this narrow meaning.

Article I, 8 of the Constitution delegates to the Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce. And it is settled beyond question that the transportation of persons is “commerce” within the meaning of that provision. [Footnote 1] It is nevertheless true, that the States are not wholly precluded from exercising their police power in matters of local concern even though they may thereby affect interstate

Page 314 U. S. 173

commerce. California v. Thompson, 313 U. S. 109, 313 U. S. 113. The issue presented in this case, therefore, is whether the prohibition embodied in § 2615 against the “bringing” or transportation of indigent persons into California is within the police power of that State. We think that it is not, and hold that it is an unconstitutional barrier to interstate commerce.

The grave and perplexing social and economic dislocation which this statute reflects is a matter of common knowledge and concern. We are not unmindful of it. We appreciate that the spectacle of large segments of our population constantly on the move has given rise to urgent demands upon the ingenuity of government. Both the brief of the Attorney General of California and that of the Chairman of the Select Committee of the House of Representatives of the United States, as amicus curiae, have sharpened this appreciation. The State asserts that the huge influx of migrants into California in recent years has resulted in problems of health, morals, and especially finance, the proportions of which are staggering. It is not for us to say that this is not true. We have repeatedly and recently affirmed, and we now reaffirm, that we do not conceive it our function to pass upon “the wisdom, need, or appropriateness” of the legislative efforts of the States to solve such difficulties. See Olsen v. Nebraska, 313 U. S. 236, 313 U. S. 246.

But this does not mean that there are no boundaries to the permissible area of State legislative activity. There are. And none is more certain than the prohibition against attempts on the part of any single State to isolate itself from difficulties common to all of them by restraining the transportation of persons and property across its borders. It is frequently the case that a State might gain a momentary respite from the pressure of events by the simple expedient of shutting its gates to the outside world. But, in the words of Mr. Justice Cardozo:

“The Constitution was

Page 314 U. S. 174

framed under the dominion of a political philosophy less parochial in range. It was framed upon the theory that the peoples of the several States must sink or swim together, and that, in the long run, prosperity and salvation are in union, and not division.”

Baldwin v. Seelig, 294 U. S. 511, 294 U. S. 523.

It is difficult to conceive of a statute more squarely in conflict with this theory than the Section challenged here. Its express purpose and inevitable effect is to prohibit the transportation of indigent persons across the California border. The burden upon interstate commerce is intended and immediate; it is the plain and sole function of the statute.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:46
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