Supreme Court Decisions Every American Should Know About #2: U.S. v. LopezAugust 10, 2009
Today I continue my series of posts on Supreme Court decisions 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.
This installment features the case United States v. Lopez, a 1995 case on the Commerce Clause which may have actually saved federalism in America from near-certain demise.
United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995) put an end to the ridiculous expansion of Congressional power through the Commerce 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 clear limit to what constitutes economic activity in interstate commerce within the meaning of the Commerce Clause.
Lopez was a high school senior who decided to bring a gun to school in 1992. He was charged with violating the Gun Free School Zone Act of 1990, U.S.C 922(q), in which Congress claimed authority to regulate gun posession in school zones (a criminal activity within the jurisdiction of state police powers). The government argued that since gun violence in schools had a negative aggregate effect on education, it would in turn have a negative effect on interstate commerce, and was thus within the definition of what Congress could regulate using the Commerce Clause.
The error of this logic is simple. Not only is possession of a gun in a school zone not an economic activity…it is also an activity which has nothing to with interstate commerce. If the Court had ruled in favor of the Government’s position, then it would have likely given Congress a carte blanche to regulate any activity whatsoever, no matter how remote the activity’s connection is to interstate commerce.
But as Rehnquist stated:
“To uphold the Government’s contentions here, we would have to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the States. Admittedly, some of our prior cases have taken long steps down that road, giving great deference to congressional action…but we decline here to proceed any further. To do so would require us to conclude that the Constitution’s enumeration of power does not presuppose something not enumerated…and that there will never be a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local..This we are unwilling to do. “
Thus, instead of continuing the Court’s trend of deferring to Congress whenever the Government wished to regulate non-economic or non-interstate activities, Rehnquist and his fellow justices laid down a standard which would define more sharply what could be considered interstate commerce within the meaning of the Commerce Clause. These activities and things which Congress may regulate are:
1. The channels of interstate commerce
2.Instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce
3. Activities having a substantial affect on interstate commerce.
By sharply limiting how the Commerce Clause could be interpreted, the Court essentially prevented the demise of federalism. Decades of federal encroachment on state police powers were about to come to an end. As Rehnquist stated in the opinion, had the Court accepted the Government’s arguments, it would have validated a widely held belief that there was no thing, no activity, and no person which Congress did not have the power to regulate. But the Court ruled in favor of federalism, states’ rights and limited government, and those ideas are still alive–barely, but nonetheless still alive.
You can read the full text of the majority opinion here.