The Origins of Substantive Due Process

67 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2019 Last revised: 5 May 2020

See all articles by Ilan Wurman

Ilan Wurman

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: March 30, 2019


In the antebellum nineteenth century, courts often voided legislative acts for substantive unreasonableness or for exceeding the scope of legitimate police powers. Contrary to the assertions of a number of modern scholars, however, this tradition does not support the concept of economic substantive due process. Courts voided municipal acts exceeding the scope of legitimate police powers on two grounds—the law of delegation and the law of municipal corporations—that did not apply to acts of state legislatures. The states themselves were limited to reasonable exercises of the police power only when their asserted authority came into potential collision with federal constitutional requirements, most prominently the Commerce and Contracts Clauses.

It was only late in the century, after the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, that a police-power version of substantive due process emerged as a limitation on state legislatures as courts began conflating, under the guise of “due process of law,” earlier doctrines that had used a similar vocabulary but for distinct purposes. Police-power limitations on state legislatures regulating purely internal matters therefore probably cannot be justified by any antebellum legal conception of due process of law. A police-power analysis might, however, play some role in a Privileges or Immunities Clause challenge by analogy to antebellum Commerce Clause and Contracts Clause jurisprudence.

Keywords: substantive due process, police powers, due process, municipal corporations, negative commerce clause, dormant commerce clause, contracts clause, delegation, Fourteenth Amendment, privileges or immunities, Thomas Cooley, John F. Dillon, Slaughter-House Cases, Lochner

Suggested Citation

Wurman, Ilan, The Origins of Substantive Due Process (March 30, 2019). 87 University of Chicago Law Review 815, Available at SSRN:

Ilan Wurman (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

United States

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