The Mann Act as problematic law

From Roderick M. Hills, Jr.’s “The Federalist Capers” (Legal Affairs: May/June 2005):

BY CONTRAST WITH THE COURT’S RECORD IN ECONOMIC MATTERS, the pre-New-Deal court was oddly reluctant to impose any limits on federally sponsored cultural conservatism. The Mann Act, which prohibited any person from aiding in the interstate transportation of a “woman or girl” for “prostitution, or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose,” provides a useful illustration of the limits that judicially enforced federalism will go to.

Congress enacted the Mann Act in 1910 by comfortable majorities, in the wake of a national furor over allegations that young women were being kidnapped by syndicates of brothels and forced to work as prostitutes. In retrospect, historians explain the panic over “white slavery” as largely attributable to anxieties over immigration (the syndicates were said to be run by foreigners, especially foreign Jews) and urbanization, which led to a rise in the numbers of unaccompanied single women visible in public places.

Although the act was inspired by fears of coerced prostitution, it was soon enforced by the federal government as part of a crusade against nonmarital sex in general. As David Langum has shown in Crossing Over the Line, a large majority of the FBI’s Mann Act investigations during the 1920s was for noncommercial offenses, typically prosecutions of unmarried but romantically involved couples who crossed state lines. Even the purpose of protecting women from coercion was soon dropped. The Department of Justice took the view that the female “victim” should generally be prosecuted as a co-conspirator if she consented to “immoral” travel. Charges were frequently foregone if the “victim” married the perpetrator, suggesting that the statute was really a federal effort to protect males’ control over their wives and daughters. Though the federal government abandoned the effort to enforce the Mann Act in the 1930s against noncommercial sex, J. Edgar Hoover later used it in raids on brothels to collect information about public persons, like Charlie Chaplin, whom he regarded as subversive.

In short, the Mann Act was everything that you would expect from centralized enforcement of sexual morality – oppressive, gratuitous, and subject to all the abuses of prosecutorial discretion. The regulation of interstate transportation was a thin pretext for federal intervention, given that the act’s authors surely were not concerned that the states were somehow incompetent to regulate sexual morality within their boundaries.

In light of all of these concerns, you might expect that the Supreme Court would have found the Mann Act to be an easy case for invalidation under principles of federalism. But the court unanimously upheld the act in 1913 in Hoke v. United States, and then also upheld its application to noncommercial consensual sexual liaisons four years later in Caminetti v. United States.