United States v. Lopez

United States Supreme Court

514 U.S. 549, 115 S.Ct. 1624, 131 L.Ed. 2d. 626 (1995)

 

            In enacting 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.” A 12th-grade student in San Antonio, Texas, was convicted under the statute after he was found to be carrying a concealed .38 caliber handgun and five bullets at school. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed respondent’s conviction, holding the act was invalid because Congress had exceeded its authority under the Commerce Clause. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

 

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            We start with first principles. The Constitution creates a Federal Government of enumerated powers. ... As James Madison wrote, “[t]he powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” ... This constitutionally mandated division of authority “was adopted by the Framers to ensure protection of our fundamental liberties.” ... “Just as the separation and independence of the coordinate branches of the Federal Government serves to prevent the accumulation of excessive power in any one branch, a healthy balance of power between the States and the Federal Government will reduce the risk of tyranny and abuse from either front.” ...

 

            ... [W]e 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. ... For example, the destruction of an aircraft or ... thefts from interstate shipments. 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. ...

 

            Within this final category, admittedly, 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. ... We conclude, consistent with the great weight of our case law, that 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 [the challenged statute]. The first two categories of authority may be quickly disposed of: [the challenged statute] 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 [the challenged statute] 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 [the challenged statute] is to be sustained, it must be under the third category as a regulation of an activity that substantially affects interstate commerce.

 

            First, we have upheld a wide variety of congressional Acts regulating intrastate economic activity where we have concluded that the activity substantially affected interstate commerce. Examples include the regulation of intrastate coal mining; ... intrastate extortionate credit transactions, ... restaurants utilizing substantial interstate supplies, ... inns and hotels catering to interstate guests, ... and production and consumption of home-grown wheat. ... These examples are by no means exhaustive, but the pattern is clear. Where economic activity substantially affects interstate commerce, legislation regulating that activity will be sustained. ...

 

            ... [The challenged statute] 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. [It] 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. ...

 

            The Government’s essential contention ... is that we may determine here that [the challenged statute] is valid because possession of a firearm in a local school zone does indeed substantially affect interstate commerce. ... The Government argues that possession of a firearm in a school zone may result in violent crime and that violent crime can be expected to affect the functioning of the national economy in two ways. First, the costs of violent crime are substantial, and, through the mechanism of insurance, those costs are spread throughout the population. ... Second, violent crime reduces the willingness of individuals to travel to areas within the country that are perceived to be unsafe. ... The Government also argues that the presence of guns in schools poses a substantial threat to the educational process by threatening the learning environment. A handicapped educational process, in turn, will result in a less productive citizenry. That, in turn, would have an adverse effect on the Nation’s economic well-being. As a result, the Government argues that Congress could rationally have concluded that [the challenged statute] substantially affects interstate commerce.

 

            We pause to consider the implications of the Government’s arguments. 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 [the challenged statute], 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 ... 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. ...

 

            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. ...

 

Justice Kennedy, with whom Justice O’Connor joins, concurring. ...

 

Justice Thomas, concurring. ...

 

Justice Stevens, dissenting. ...

 

Justice Souter, dissenting. ...

 

Justice Breyer, with whom Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, and Justice Ginsburg join, dissenting.

 

            The issue in this case is whether the Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to enact a statute that makes it a crime to possess a gun in, or near, a school. ... In my view, the statute falls well within the scope of the commerce power as this Court has understood that power over the last half-century.

 

            In reaching this conclusion, I apply three basic principles of Commerce Clause interpretation. First, the power to “regulate Commerce ... among the several States” ... encompasses the power to regulate local activities insofar as they significantly affect interstate commerce. ... Second, in determining whether a local activity will likely have a significant effect upon interstate commerce, a court must consider, not the effect of an individual act ..., but rather the cumulative effect of all similar instances (i.e., the effect of all guns possessed in or near schools). ... Third, the Constitution requires _us to judge the connection between a regulated activity and interstate commerce, not directly, but at one remove. Courts must give Congress a degree of leeway in determining the existence of a significant factual connection between the regulated activity and interstate commerce—both because the Constitution delegates the commerce power directly to Congress and because the determination requires an empirical judgment of a kind that a legislature is more likely than a court to make with accuracy. The traditional words “rational basis” capture this leeway. ... Thus, the specific question before us, as the Court recognizes, is not whether the “regulated activity sufficiently affected interstate commerce,” but, rather, whether Congress could have had “a rational basis” for so concluding. ...

 

            Applying these principles to the case at hand, we must ask whether Congress could have had a rational basis for finding a significant (or substantial) connection between gun-related school violence and interstate commerce. Or, to put the question in the language of the explicit finding that Congress made when it amended this law in 1994: Could Congress rationally have found that “violent crime in school zones,” through its effect on the “quality of education,” significantly (or substantially) affects “interstate” or “foreign commerce”? ... As long as one views the commerce connection, not as a “technical legal conception,” but as “a practical one,” ... the answer to this question must be yes. Numerous reports and studies—generated both inside and outside government—make clear that Congress could reasonably have found the empirical connection that its law, implicitly or explicitly, asserts. ...

 

            For one thing, reports, hearings, and other readily available literature make clear that the problem of guns in and around schools is widespread and extremely serious. These materials report, for example, that four percent of American high school students (and six percent of inner-city high school students) carry a gun to school at least occasionally, ... that 12 percent of urban high school students have had guns fired at them, ... that 20 percent of those students have been threatened with guns, ... and that, in any 6-month period, several hundred thousand schoolchildren are victims of violent crimes in or near their schools. ... And, they report that this widespread violence in schools throughout the Nation significantly interferes with the quality of education in those schools. ... Based on reports such as these, Congress obviously could have thought that guns and learning are mutually exclusive. ... And, Congress could therefore have found a substantial educational problem—­teachers unable to teach, students unable to learn—and concluded that guns near schools contribute substantially to the size and scope of that problem.

 

            Having found that guns in schools significantly undermine the quality of education in our Nation’s classrooms, Congress could also have found, given the effect of education upon interstate and foreign commerce, that gun-related violence in and around schools is a commercial, as well as a human, problem. Education, although far more than a matter of economics, has long been inextricably intertwined with the Nation’s economy. ...

 

            The economic links I have just sketched seem fairly obvious. Why then is it not equally obvious, in light of those links, that a widespread, serious, and substantial physical threat to teaching and learning also substantially threatens the commerce to which that teaching and learning is inextricably tied? That is to say, guns in the hands of six percent of inner-city high school students and gun-related violence throughout a city’s schools must threaten the trade and commerce that those schools support. The only question, then, is whether the latter threat is (to use the majority’s terminology) “substantial.” And, the evidence of (1) the extent of the gun-related violence problem, ... (2) the extent of the resulting negative effect on classroom learning, ... and (3) the extent of the consequent negative commercial effects, ... when taken together, indicate a threat to trade and commerce that is “substantial.” At the very least, Congress could rationally have concluded that the links are “substantial.”

 

            Specifically, Congress could have found that gun-­related violence near the classroom poses a serious economic threat (1) to consequently inadequately educated workers who must endure low paying jobs, ... and (2) to communities and businesses that might (in today’s “information society”) otherwise gain, from a well-educated work force, an important commercial advantage, ... of a kind that location near a railhead or harbor provided in the past. ...

 

            In sum, to find this legislation within the scope of the Commerce Clause would permit “Congress ... to act in terms of economic ... realities.” ... It would interpret the Clause as this Court has traditionally interpreted it, with the exception of one wrong turn subsequently corrected. ... Upholding this legislation would do no more than simply recognize that Congress had a “rational basis” for finding a significant connection between guns in or near schools and (through their effect on education) the interstate and foreign commerce they threaten. For these reasons, I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals. ...