A. B. Small Co. v. American Sugar Refining Co – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

A. B. Small Co. v. American Sugar Refining Co - Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In A. B. Small Co. v. American Sugar Refining Co., 267 U.S. 233, 45 S.Ct. 295, 69 L.Ed. 597 (1925), the Court faced a contract dispute in which one of the parties argued that a statutory defense offered by its adversary was negated by the undue vagueness of the statute it was based upon.

The adversary responded that what we now refer to as the void-for-vagueness doctrine did not apply outside the criminal arena.

The Court rejected this distinction:

In a series of cases ... this court held (the relevant) provision invalid as contravening the due process of law clause of the Fifth Amendment, among others, because it required that the transactions named should conform to a rule or standard which was so vague and indefinite that no one could know what it was ....

The defendant attempts to distinguish those cases because they were criminal prosecutions. But that is not an adequate distinction. The ground or principle of the decisions was not such as to be applicable only to criminal prosecutions. It was not the criminal penalty that was held invalid, but the exaction of obedience to a rule or standard which was so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all. Any other means of exaction, such as declaring the transaction unlawful or stripping a participant of his rights under it, was equally within the principle of those cases. (Id. at 238-239, 45 S.Ct. at 297.)