Supreme Court Decisions Every American Should Know About #1: Wickard v. Filburn

August 5, 2009

Today will be the first installment of a new series of posts I intend to write: Supreme Court Decisions Every American Should Know About.

Each post will feature a particular Supreme Court decision that, in my opinion, greatly redefined how a particular provision of the Constitution is interpreted or had a long-lasting impact on some area of public policy in the United States, for better or for worse.


Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942) was described by Justice  William Rehnquist in 1995 as “perhaps the most far reaching example of Commerce Clause authority over intrastate commerce.” This decision set a precedent which for the next 53 years would enable Congress to use the commerce clause to regulate all sorts of commercial activities that were once safe within the confines of the states’ police powers.

Growing too much of this would get you a hefty fine during the New Deal, even though starving people everywhere in America would have loved you for it.

Growing too much of this would get you a hefty fine during the New Deal, even though starving people everywhere in America would have loved you for it.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was a great abomination of the New Deal program. The act was pretty simple: the federal government paid farmers to grow less crops in order to reduce the supply of grain, thereby raising prices and increasing farmers’ income. That’s right: during a depression, when food was scarce and people were starving, the government paid farmers to grow less food and punished them with fines if they grew more than their allotment.

Roscoe Filburn was an Ohio farmer that grew 23 acres of wheat, even though the Department of Agriculture told him he was only allowed to farm 11.3 acres. He was fined $117 for the surplus. Never mind that he owned all that land and people in America were starving for more wheat–it was for the “common good.” Roscoe rightfully refused to pay the fine and got a nice court case out of it.

The basis for Congress’ claim to jurisdiction over wheat grown on a farmer’s privately-owned field–wheat which never crossed state lines–was the Insterstate Commerce Clause: that clause of Article I which declares that “Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce…among the several states.” How could Congress be permitted to prohibit a farmer from growing extra wheat on his farm using the Interstate Commerce Clause even though the wheat never crossed state lines?

Well, the Court determined that Filburn’s production of extra wheat meant that he wasn’t buying wheat produced elsewhere in the market, and that increase of supply would mean a price decrease somewhere else. And if multiple farmers did the same thing, those actions, when aggregated, would have the effect of decreasing grain prices and undermining the intent of the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

This “aggregation principle” meant that any action undertaken by any individual in any state–regardless of whether that action was commercial in nature or involved commercial activity over state lines–was within the jurisdiction of Congress and its regulatory powers. And that’s exactly what Congress did. Using the Commerce Clause and Wickard‘s Aggregation Principle, Congress spent the next 50 years disintegrating the barrier between State and Federal police powers by claiming that any action could be regulated by Congress if, when aggregated, would have an effect on interstate commerce. Holding a gun within a school zone, hitting a woman–these were activities, once wholly within the police powers of the states to regulate, which now became economic activities which Congress could regulate whenever it felt like it.

Congress used Wickard’s aggregation principle and the Commerce Clause to usurp authority from the states until the 1995 case U.S. v. Lopez, where Justice William Rehnquist decided enough was enough, and finally placed some severe restrictions on what could actually be considered “interstate commerce” within the proper jurisdiction of Congress–rescuing the ideal of federalism and separation of powers from inevitable demise.

Read the Court’s decision on Wickard v. Filburn here.


One comment

  1. […] Clause that had occurred for the 50 years following the decision in Wickard v. Filburn (see my post on Wickard for more info). Justice Rehnquist, writing the opinion, put his foot down and said that there is a […]

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