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Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority

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Significance: The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the TVA, including its right to sell electricity. In a concurring opinion, Justice Louis D. Brandeis formulated influential guidelines concerning when the Court will decide constitutional questions.


When the TVA sold “surplus power” to a private utility company, minority shareholders went to court to annul the agreement. Speaking for an 8-1 majority, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes argued that the TVA had been built for national defense and for the improvement of navigation, which were legitimate interests of the national government. He added that Article IV, section 3, of the U.S. Constitution authorized Congress to dispose of property legally acquired. Dissenting, Justice James C. McReynolds accused the majority of using a fictitious rationale, since the main purpose of the TVA was to produce and sell electricity. Although concurring with the decision, Justice Brandeis argued that the Supreme Court should not have even addressed the constitutional question because the case involved only an internal dispute among shareholders. He codified rules for the Court to follow. First, the Court will not determine constitutional questions in a friendly, nonadversarial proceeding; second, the Court will not anticipate an issue of constitutional law; third, the Court will not decide a constitutional question unless necessary to resolving the case at hand; fourth, the Court will not formulate a principle of constitutional law broader than necessary for resolving the case; fifth, the Court will not decide on the validity of a statute unless a plaintiff has been injured by its operation; and sixth, before deciding that a statute is unconstitutional, the Court will first ascertain whether a reasonable interpretation of the statute permits avoidance of the constitutional issue. Although not always followed, justices commonly refer to the Ashwander rules, or Brandeis rules, as established standards. At times the rules have encouraged the justices to exercise a degree of self-restraint, and sometimes they have served as an excuse to avoid awkward or difficult questions.