However, Stone wound up leading the court’s liberals, including legal luminaries Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo, with stirring dissents against decisions striking down economic regulations.
Stone unleashed his greatest fury at a 1936 decision overturning the New Deal’s controversial Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). To increase devastatingly depressed prices for agricultural goods, the AAA taxed agricultural processors to fund subsidies for farmers who limited their output.
The Constitution’s text, which allows Congress to tax and spend to provide for the nation’s general welfare, seemed to authorize the AAA. But the court’s conservative majority ruled that Congress could not tax and spend to regulate agriculture, even if agriculture substantially affected the nation’s welfare.
The majority opinion argued that this limitation – which appears nowhere in the Constitution – was necessary to prevent Congress from enacting a raft of horrible regulations that would redistribute wealth throughout the economy.
Stone’s dissent reminded his colleagues that they decide only whether Congress could enact the AAA, not whether it should. Stone argued that the broad language of the tax and spend clause confirmed that the framers meant to grant Congress extensive powers to exercise at its own discretion.
And rightly so, he exclaimed, for the people can replace a Congress that enacts a dumb law, while only the unelected court’s “sense of self restraint” prevents abuses of its own power. Indeed, Stone’s closing suggested that the court’s decision to usurp Congress’s power over the national economy would ultimately threaten the liberties of the people more than the horrible regulations that the court’s majority feared.