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What started as a case of petty revenge turned into competition on the public waterways, and then became the first Commerce Clause case in Supreme Court history.
The facts that gave rise to Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1 (1824), ostensibly involve a battle between two steamboat operators, Aaron Ogden and Thomas Gibbons. But it all began when Ogden counseled Gibbons’s wife in divorce proceedings. Ogden then had Gibbons arrested for fraud.
Gibbons vowed revenge and set out to form a competing steamboat business. Ogden had a license from the state of New York, giving him the exclusive right to operate steamboats in New York waters. So Gibbons secured a federal license to operate along the same route. Ogden sued Gibbons in New York state court, and the case was litigated all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The Court ultimately concluded that Congress’s commerce power extended to the regulation of navigation between the states. Therefore, Gibbons’s federal license trumped Ogden’s state license, and Ogden’s lawsuit was dismissed.
More importantly, this case set the stage for many years of Supreme Court jurisprudence, during which Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause would be interpreted ever more broadly.