After Wickard v. Filburn, discussed in Part 3, the Supreme Court deferred to Congress’ decisions regarding interstate commerce and failed to protect the economic rights of states and citizens for over 50 years.
United States v. Lopez 514 U.S. 549 (1995), a case centered on the Gun-Free School Zones Act on 1990 (codified as 18 U.S.C. section 922(q)) which made it a federal offense to knowingly possess a firearm in an area that a person knows or has reasonable cause to believe is a school zone, was the first case in which the Supreme Court limited Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause in over a half century. Alfonso Lopez, Jr., a 12th grader at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas, brought an unloaded .38 caliber revolver and 5 cartridges to school to deliver the weapon to another individual in exchange for $40. He was caught by school officials and subsequently charged under the Act. Lopez was convicted at trial and appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court agreed with Lopez and held that section 922(q) was invalid as it was beyond the scope of the Commerce Clause. In its ruling, the Appeals Court noted that the government failed to prove how the law had a substantial impact on interstate commerce. Upon certiorari, the Supreme Court agreed. The government’s prosecutor argued that the possession of a firearm in a school would lead to violent crime and that such crime would increase insurance expenses nationally and create an unwillingness to travel. In addition, the government argued that the presence of guns in schools would affect students’ learning which would ultimately lead to a weaker economy. The Supreme Court noted that criminal and noneconomic nature of the conduct was central to its decision and that criminalizing activity that was not commercial was unlawful on jurisdictional grounds when there was no established nexus between the activity and interstate commerce. In addition to finding the government’s arguments insufficient, the Supreme Court also found that they were unreasonable in the precedent it would set for future legislation. Essentially, approval of the government’s rationale would give the federal government the power to regulate any activity that could lead to violent crime. Consequently, the Supreme Court ruled against Congress in a 5-4 decision.
Although United States v. Lopez was later affirmed in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the Supreme Court’s willingness to thwart Congress’ abuse of the Commerce was short lived as you will find out in Part 5 of this series.