Key SCOTUS Cases – United States v. Lopez

by Professor Byron L. Warnken on August 31, 2010

United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995).

This case was the first case, since the New Deal, that limited congressional authority under the Commerce Clause.  Defendant was convicted of violating Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 by carrying a handgun and cartridges into his school.  Government argued that the Act was within Commerce Clause powers because carrying firearms near schools could lead to violent crime, which could affect the economy and travel and could produce a less-educated citizenry.  Supreme Court held that the broad power of the federal government to regulate commerce is not unlimited.  There was no evidence that this would affect the economy in manner argued by the Government.  Congress has power, under the Commerce Clause, only to regulate the (1) channels of commerce, (2) instrumentalities of commerce, (3) persons or things in interstate commerce, and (4) actions that substantially affect interstate commerce.  This is a criminal statute, and possession of guns near schools is not economic activity that might, through repetition, have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.  Furthermore, nothing limited the Act’s reach to firearms with explicit connection to interstate commerce.  Although not required, there were no congressional findings linking possession of firearms near local school zones with interstate commerce.

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