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United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549; 115 S. Ct. 1624; 131 L. Ed. 2d 626 (1995)

United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549; 115 S. Ct. 1624; 131 L. Ed. 2d 626 (1995)

Facts—A twelfth-grade student was convicted of violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 for knowingly possessing a firearm at a school. Lopez appealed his conviction in a U.S. District Court to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court, which found that the act exceeded federal powers to regulate interstate commerce.

Question—Does the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 exceed congressional powers under the commerce clause?


Reasons—C.J. Rehnquist (5–4). Starting with “first principles,” Rehnquist noted that “The Constitution creates a Federal Government of enumerated powers.” One such power was that of regulating interstate and foreign commerce. Initially devoted chiefly to limiting state legislation discriminating against such commerce, interpretations of the clause have since been widened to allow greater federal regulation of commercial activities. Such activities may be divided into three broad areas—regulations of the “channels of interstate commerce,” the “instrumentalities” of such commerce, and activities “having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.” Since the first two are involved in this case, the Court must examine the third. The statute at issue “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,” and Congress made no attempt to assess such a relationship on a case by-case basis or to establish a commercial nexus in this area of policy. To find such a nexus would be to invest Congress with “a plenary police power that would authorize enactment of every type of legislation.” To uphold this law, the Court “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.”

J. Kennedy’s concurring opinion expressed some concern over the Court’s past history in this area but concluded that the Court’s decision was necessary to preserve federalism and the powers reserved to the states. J. Thomas’s concurrence called for a reexamination of the “substantial effects” test, which he believed has invested Congress with excessive power.

J. Stevens’s dissent argued that commerce depends on education and that guns threaten such education. J. Souter’s dissent argued for deference to rationally based legislative judgments as to what affects commerce. J. Breyer argued that power to regulate commerce included the power to regulate local activities that affect interstate commerce, that Congress can consider the cumulate effects of gun possession, and that courts are obligated to defer to congressional judgments as to such effects. He believed that Congress could reasonably have found a rational basis for connecting gun violence in schools with disruptions of interstate commerce. Souter believed this decision was inconsistent with past precedents, that it rested on a false distinction between commercial and non-commercial activities, and that it threatened “legal uncertainty in an area of law that, until this case, seemed reasonably well settled.”

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