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No Nevadan has ever been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Our state has popped up in a few cases over the years, though not many. The first time was one hundred and fifty years ago in Crandall v. Nevada.
In 1865, the first state legislature came up with a variety of taxes to fund the government. One of them imposed a one-dollar tax for every person who left the state via a carriage or railroad. Either the people in question or the company transporting them would pay the tax.
William Crandall was the Carson City agent of the Pioneer Stage Company. When the sheriff requested his passenger list, Crandall refused. The local justice of the peace ordered him jailed. Crandall appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court. His argument was that the state had no business passing the tax. Congress had the job of regulating commerce. Also, the Constitution forbade states from taxing exports. The state replied that Nevada could regulate the commerce because Congress had not. Also, it could not be a tax on exports because a person could not be an export. The Nevada Supreme Court said no to Crandall’s arguments.
Crandall appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices issued their opinion in March 1868. The eight-member court threw out Nevada’s tax. The majority had no interest in whether people could be exports. Justice Samuel Miller’s opinion overturned the law because it limited the rights of citizens to travel from state to state. Miller said, “The people of these United States constitute one nation. They have a government in which all of them are deeply interested.” He cited the example of Union troops in hostile territory during the recent Civil War. He said, “If the tax levied by Nevada on railroad passengers had been the law of Tennessee, enlarged to meet the wishes of her people, the Treasury of the United States could not have paid the tax necessary to enable its armies to pass through her territory.”
Miller also said the point isn’t how big the tax is, but that it’s unconstitutional: “if the government has these rights on her own account, the citizen also … has the right to come to the seat of the government … this right is in its nature independent of the will of any State over whose soil he must pass in the exercise of it.”
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know the opinion wasn’t quite unanimous. Justice Nathan Clifford wrote a concurrence and dissent, which Chief Justice Salmon Chase joined. Clifford said he agreed the tax was unconstitutional, but not because of travel. Rather, he cited federal power to regulate commerce—one of Crandall’s original arguments.
Miller was appointed to the Supreme Court by Abraham Lincoln, who also appointed four of the other seven justices—including Chase. So, a president’s appointees don’t always agree. But most of them agreed here on federal supremacy, which was a crucial issue to Lincoln during the Civil War. As one legal scholar wrote, this case showed the justices were “in no mood to tolerate state burdens on the rights of federal citizens.” Miller said the authors of the Constitution “did not design to make their government dependent on the States.” Many Nevadans have chafed at the federal government’s power. But Nevada was battle born, and in this battle over federal supremacy, Nevada lost.