Requirement that Regulation be Economic.

In United States v. Lopez909 the Court, for the first time in almost sixty years,910 invalidated a federal law as exceeding Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause. The statute made it a federal offense to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.911 The Court reviewed the doctrinal development of the Commerce Clause, especially the effects and aggregation tests, and reaffirmed that it is the Court’s responsibility to decide whether a rational basis exists for concluding that a regulated activity sufficiently affects interstate commerce when a law is challenged.912 As noted previously, the Court evaluation started with a consideration of whether the legislation fell within the three broad categories of activity that Congress may regulate or protect under its commerce power: (1) use of the channels of interstate commerce, (2) the use of instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or (3) activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.913

Clearly, the Court said, the criminalized activity did not implicate the first two categories.914 As for the third, the Court found an insufficient connection. First, a wide variety of regulations of “intrastate economic activity” has been sustained where an activity substantially affects interstate commerce. But the statute being challenged, the Court continued, was a criminal law that had nothing to do with “commerce” or with “any sort of economic enterprise.” Therefore, it could not be sustained under precedents “upholding regulations of activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce.”915 The provision did not contain a “jurisdictional element which would ensure, through case-by-case inquiry, that the firearm possession in question affects interstate commerce.”916 The existence of such a section, the Court implied, would have saved the constitutionality of the provision by requiring a showing of some connection to commerce in each particular case.

Finally, the Court rejected the arguments of the government and of the dissent that there existed a sufficient connection between the offense and interstate commerce.917 At base, the Court’s concern was that accepting the attenuated connection arguments presented would result in the evisceration of federalism. “Under the theories that the government presents . . . 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.”918

Whether Lopez bespoke a Court determination to police more closely Congress’s exercise of its commerce power, so that it would be a noteworthy case,919 or whether it was rather a “warning shot” across the bow of Congress, urging more restraint in the exercise of power or more care in the drafting of laws, was not immediately clear. The Court’s decision five years later in United States v. Morrison,920 however, suggests that stricter scrutiny of Congress’s commerce power exercises is the chosen path, at least for legislation that falls outside the area of economic regulation.921 The Court will no longer defer, via rational basis review, to every congressional finding of substantial effects on interstate commerce, but instead will examine the nature of the asserted nexus to commerce, and will also consider whether a holding of constitutionality is consistent with its view of the commerce power as being a limited power that cannot be allowed to displace all exercise of state police powers.

In Morrison the Court applied Lopez principles to invalidate a provision of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that created a federal cause of action for victims of gender-motivated violence. Gender-motivated crimes of violence “are not, in any sense of the phrase, economic activity,”922 the Court explained, and there was allegedly no precedent for upholding commerce-power regulation of intrastate activity that was not economic in nature. The provision, like the invalidated provision of the Gun-Free School Zones Act, contained no jurisdictional element tying the regulated violence to interstate commerce. Unlike the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the VAWA did contain “numerous” congressional findings about the serious effects of gender-motivated crimes,923 but the Court rejected reliance on these findings. “The existence of congressional findings is not sufficient, by itself, to sustain the constitutionality of Commerce Clause legislation. . . . [The issue of constitutionality] is ultimately a judicial rather than a legislative question, and can be settled finally only by this Court.”924

The problem with the VAWA findings was that they “relied heavily” on the reasoning rejected in Lopez—the “but-for causal chain from the initial occurrence of crime . . . to every attenuated effect upon interstate commerce.” As the Court had explained in Lopez, acceptance of this reasoning would eliminate the distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local, and would allow Congress to regulate virtually any activity, and basically any crime.925 Accordingly, the Court “reject[ed] the argument that Congress may regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct based solely on that conduct’s aggregate effect on interstate commerce.” Resurrecting the dual federalism dichotomy, the Court could find “no better example of the police power, which the Founders denied the National Government and reposed in the States, than the suppression of violent crime and vindication of its victims.”926

Yet, the ultimate impact of these cases on Congress’s power over commerce may be limited. In Gonzales v. Raich,927 the Court reaffirmed an expansive application of Wickard v. Filburn, and signaled that its jurisprudence is unlikely to threaten the enforcement of broad regulatory schemes based on the Commerce Clause. In Raich, the Court considered whether the cultivation, distribution, or possession of marijuana for personal medical purposes pursuant to the California Compassionate Use Act of 1996 could be prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA).928 The respondents argued that this class of activities should be considered as separate and distinct from the drug-trafficking that was the focus of the CSA, and that regulation of this limited non-commercial use of marijuana should be evaluated separately.

In Raich, the Court declined the invitation to apply Lopez and Morrison to select applications of a statute, holding that the Court would defer to Congress if there was a rational basis to believe that regulation of home-consumed marijuana would affect the market for marijuana generally. The Court found that there was a “rational basis” to believe that diversion of medicinal marijuana into the illegal market would depress the price on the latter market.929 The Court also had little trouble finding that, even in application to medicinal marijuana, the CSA was an economic regulation. Noting that the definition of “economics” includes “the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities,”930 the Court found that prohibiting the intrastate possession or manufacture of an article of commerce is a rational and commonly used means of regulating commerce in that product.931

The Court’s decision also contained an intertwined but potentially separate argument that Congress had ample authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause to regulate the intrastate manufacture and possession of controlled substances, because failure to regulate these activities would undercut the ability of the government to enforce the CSA generally.932 The Court quoted language from Lopez that appears to authorize the regulation of such activities on the basis that they are an essential part of a regulatory scheme.933 Justice Scalia, in concurrence, suggested that this latter category of activities could be regulated under the Necessary and Proper Clause regardless of whether the activity in question was economic or whether it substantially affected interstate commerce.934


514 U.S. 549 (1995). The Court was divided 5-to-4, with Chief Justice Rehnquist writing the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, with dissents by Justices Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and Ginsburg. back
Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238 (1936) (striking down regulation of mining industry as outside of Commerce Clause). back
18 U.S.C. § 922(q)(1)(A). Congress subsequently amended the section to make the offense jurisdictionally to turn on possession of “a firearm that has moved in or that otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.” Pub. L. 104–208, 110 Stat. 3009–370. back
514 U.S. at 556–57, 559. back
514 U.S. at 558–59. For an example of regulation of persons or things in interstate commerce, see Reno v. London, 528 U.S. 141 (2000) (information about motor vehicles and owners, regulated pursuant to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, and sold by states and others, is an article of commerce) back
514 U.S. at 559. back
514 U.S. at 559–61. back
514 U.S. at 561. back
514 U.S. at 563–68. back
514 U.S. at 564. back
“Not every epochal case has come in epochal trappings.” 514 U.S. at 615 (Justice Souter dissenting) (wondering whether the case is only a misapplication of established standards or is a veering in a new direction). back
529 U.S. 598 (2000). Once again, the Justices were split 5–4, with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion of the Court being joined by Justices O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, and with Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer dissenting. back
For an expansive interpretation in the area of economic regulation, decided during the same Term as Lopez, see Allied-Bruce Terminix Cos. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265 (1995). Lopez did not “purport to announce a new rule governing Congress’s Commerce Clause power over concededly economic activity.” Citizens Bank v. Alafabco, Inc., 539 U.S. 52, 58 (2003). back
529 U.S. at 613. back
Dissenting Justice Souter pointed to a “mountain of data” assembled by Congress to show the effects of domestic violence on interstate commerce. 529 U.S. at 628–30. The Court has evidenced a similar willingness to look behind congressional findings purporting to justify exercise of enforcement power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. See discussion under “enforcement,” infra. In Morrison itself, the Court determined that congressional findings were insufficient to justify the VAWA as an exercise of Fourteenth Amendment power. 529 U.S. at 619–20. back
529 U.S. at 614. back
529 U.S. at 615–16. Applying the principle of constitutional doubt, the Court in Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848 (2000), interpreted the federal arson statute as inapplicable to the arson of a private, owner-occupied residence. Were the statute interpreted to apply to such residences, the Court noted, “hardly a building in the land would fall outside [its] domain,” and the statute’s validity under Lopez would be squarely raised. 529 U.S. at 857. back
529 U.S. at 618. back
545 U.S. 1 (2005). back
84 Stat. 1242, 21 U.S.C. §§ 801 et seq. back
545 U.S. at 19. back
545 U.S. at 25, quoting Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 720 (1966). back
See also Taylor v. United States, 579 U.S. ___, No. 14–6166, slip op. at 3 (2016) (rejecting the argument that the government, in prosecuting a defendant under the Hobbs Act for robbing drug dealers, must prove the interstate nature of the drug activity). The Taylor Court viewed this result as following necessarily from the Court’s earlier decision in Raich, because the Hobbs Act imposes criminal penalties on robberies that affect “all . . . commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction,” 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(3) (2012), and Raich established the precedent that the market for marijuana, “including its intrastate aspects,” is “commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction.” Taylor, slip op. at 6–7. Taylor was, however, expressly “limited to cases in which a defendant targets drug dealers for the purpose of stealing drugs or drug proceeds.” Id. at 9. The Court did not purport to resolve what federal prosecutors must prove in Hobbs Act robbery cases “where some other type of business or victim is targeted.” Id. back
545 U.S. at 18, 22. back
545 U.S. at 23–25. back
545 U.S. at 34–35 (Scalia, J., concurring). back