United States v. Lopez

514 U.S. 549 (1995)

(Guns and Commerce Power)

 

Context

In 1990, Congress passed the Gun Free Schools Act, prohibiting handgun possession on school grounds. As a federal law, the Act drew its authority from the Commerce Clause. On March 10, 1992, Alfonzo Lopez, a senior in high school, carried a handgun into school. The gun was not loaded, as Lopez was selling the weapon to another person in the school. School authorities approached Lopez, who admitted to having the weapon. He was charged for breaking the Gun Free Schools Act and later sentenced to six months in prison with two years of supervised release. Lopez appealed and the appellate court determined that the law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court granted the United States certiorari, agreeing to hear the case. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, deciding that the Act was a breach of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority, claiming that the possession of a gun on school grounds is not an economic activity that would have an impact on interstate commerce. This was the first time in about fifty years that the Supreme Court decided that Congress had overstepped its power under the Commerce Clause, if they could regulate public schools gun rules by means of the Commerce Clause, what would stop Congress from regulating everything? Lopez Was followed by United States v. Morrison in 1999, which ruled that parts of the Violence Against Women Act were unconstitutional because Congress had overstepped their power under the Commerce Clause once again. Lopez, while shifting the disposition of the court, did not overturn any previous rulings regarding the Commerce Clause, but rather clearly defined the federal and state divide. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer asks that the aggregate effect be considered when looking at laws that conflict with the Commerce Clause, in this case, looking at the aggregate possession of guns in all areas in or near schools, and whether that has a significant impact on interstate commerce. Justice Breyer also noted that the court’s job was not to determine whether the law has a significant impact on interstate commerce, but whether Congress had the “rational basis” to craft such a bill. Following Lopez, Congress rewrote the Gun Free Schools Act of 1990 as the Federal Gun Free School Zones Act, which is still in place today with the necessary language surrounding all federal gun laws, that it must interfere with interstate commerce to be regulated.

Facts:

In the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, Congress made it a federal offense "for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone." The Act neither regulates a commercial activity nor contains a requirement that the possession be connected in any way to interstate commerce.

On March 10, 1992, respondent, who was then a 12th-grade student, arrived at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas, carrying a concealed .38 caliber handgun and five bullets. Acting upon an anonymous tip, school authorities confronted respondent, who admitted that he was carrying the weapon. He was arrested and charged under Texas law with firearm possession on school premises.

Issue:

Whether the Act was within the power of the commerce clause. (implied)

Reasoning:

The Constitution delegates to Congress the power "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."

The commerce power "is the power to regulate; that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the constitution."

Where the interstate and intrastate aspects of commerce were so mingled together that full regulation of interstate commerce required incidental regulation of intrastate commerce, the Commerce Clause authorized such regulation.

We have identified three broad categories of activity that Congress may regulate under its commerce power. First, Congress may regulate the use of the channels of interstate commerce. Second, Congress is empowered to regulate and protect the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce, even though the threat may come only from intrastate activities. Finally, Congress' commerce authority includes the power to regulate those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce, i. e., those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.

Our case law has not been clear whether an activity must "affect" or "substantially affect" interstate commerce in order to be within Congress' power to regulate it under the Commerce Clause. The proper test requires an analysis of whether the regulated activity "substantially affects" interstate commerce. 

We now turn to consider the power of Congress, in the light of this framework, to enact § 922(q). The first two categories of authority may be quickly disposed of: § 922(q) is not a regulation of the use of the channels of interstate commerce, nor is it an attempt to prohibit the interstate transportation of a commodity through the channels of commerce; nor can § 922(q) be justified as a regulation by which Congress has sought to protect an instrumentality of interstate commerce or a thing in interstate commerce. Thus, if § 922(q) is to be sustained, it must be under the third category as a regulation of an activity that substantially affects interstate commerce. 

Section 922(q) is a criminal statute that by its terms has nothing to do with "commerce" or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define those terms. Section 922(q) is not an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity, in which the regulatory scheme could be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated. It cannot, therefore, be sustained under our cases upholding regulations of activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce.

Although as part of our independent evaluation of constitutionality under the Commerce Clause we of course consider legislative findings, and indeed even congressional committee findings, regarding effect on interstate commerce, the Government concedes that "neither the statute nor its legislative history contain[s] express congressional findings regarding the effects upon interstate commerce of gun possession in a school zone."

The Government admits, under its "costs of crime" reasoning, that Congress could regulate not only all violent crime but all activities that might lead to violent crime, regardless of how tenuously they relate to interstate commerce. Similarly, under the Government's "national productivity" reasoning, Congress could regulate any activity that it found was related to the economic productivity of individual citizens: family law (including marriage, divorce, and child custody), for example. Under the theories that the Government presents in support of § 922(q), it is difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power, even in areas such as criminal law enforcement or education where States historically have been sovereign. Thus, if we were to accept the Government's arguments, we are hard pressed to posit any activity by an individual that Congress is without power to regulate.

For instance, if Congress can, pursuant to its Commerce Clause power, regulate activities that adversely affect the learning environment, then, a fortiori, it also can regulate the educational process directly. Congress could determine that a school's curriculum has a "significant" effect on the extent of classroom learning. As a result, Congress could mandate a federal curriculum for local elementary and secondary schools because what is taught in local schools has a significant "effect on classroom learning," and that, in turn, has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

The possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce. Respondent was a local student at a local school; there is no indication that he had recently moved in interstate commerce, and there is no requirement that his possession of the firearm have any concrete tie to interstate commerce.

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. The broad language in these opinions has suggested the possibility of additional expansion, but we decline here to proceed any further. To do so would require us to conclude that the Constitution's enumeration of powers does not presuppose something not enumerated and that there never will be a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local. This we are unwilling to do.

Holding:

The Act exceeds the authority of Congress "to regulate Commerce . . . among the several States . . .."

 

Key Takeaway

For the first time since 1937, the Court struck down an act of Congress under the Commerce Clause. The Act was unconstitutional because it neither regulated a commercial activity nor contained a requirement that the possession be connected in any way to interstate commerce. The Court declared that bringing a gun to a school is a criminal act, not a commercial one. If Congress expanded the definitions of commercial here, they reasoned, then it could expand it to almost anything because everything affects commerce in some manner. These decisions should be left to states.

New Commerce Clause Test

Congress can regulate:

1. The use of the “channels” of interstate commerce” (railroads, roads, air, sea)

2. Instrumentalities of interstate commerce (persons & things)

3. Those activities having a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce

The Court also discusses the distinction between primarily economic activities, which Congress has broad authority to regulate, and noneconomic activities, which Congress must justify regulating more robustly

After the Case

The Act was essentially “remanded” to Congress. Congress amended it to include provision that for a gun taken into a school zone to be covered under the act it must have “moved in or otherwise affected interstate commerce”—the Court accepted that.


Court Syllabus:

After respondent, then a 12th-grade student, carried a concealed handgun into his high school, he was charged with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which forbids "any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows . . . is a school zone." The District Court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment, concluding that § 922(q) is a constitutional exercise of Congress' power to regulate activities in and affecting commerce. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that, in light of what it characterized as insufficient congressional findings and legislative history, § 922(q) is invalid as beyond Congress' power under the Commerce Clause.

Held: 

The Act exceeds Congress' Commerce Clause authority. First, although this Court has upheld a wide variety of congressional Acts regulating intrastate economic activity that substantially affected interstate commerce, the possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, have such a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Section 922(q) is a criminal statute that by its terms has nothing to do with "commerce" or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly those terms are defined. Nor is it an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity, in which the regulatory scheme could be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated. It cannot, therefore, be sustained under the Court's cases upholding regulations of activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which, viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce. Second, § 922(q) contains no jurisdictional element that would ensure, through case-by-case inquiry, that the firearms possession in question has the requisite nexus with interstate commerce. Respondent was a local student at a local school; there is no indication that he had recently moved in interstate commerce, and there is no requirement that his possession of the firearm have any concrete tie to interstate commerce. To uphold the Government's contention that § 922(q) is justified because firearms possession in a local school zone does indeed substantially affect interstate commerce would require this Court to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional Commerce Clause authority to a general police power of the sort held only by the States.


Dissent: Breyer argued that there was an impact on interstate commerce because guns lead to violence, violence leads to less effective learning, and less effective learning leads to not as economically productive workers. The cumulative effects of gun possession near schools DO have a significant impact on interstate commercial activity (Wickard) and WILL have a major effect on the national economy, so Congress clearly had a rational basis for enacting this regulation in the name of interstate commerce.

Dissent – Stevens argued that education significantly affects commerce because guns sharply reduce educational gains.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Rehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas

Concurrence: Kennedy, joined by O'Connor

Concurrence: Thomas

Dissent: Breyer, joined by Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg

Dissent: Stevens

Dissent: Souter