United States v. Lopez Case Brief

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

Facts: Lopez, a San Antonio high school student, was convicted for knowingly possessing a gun and bullets on school grounds under the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990.

Procedure: The court of appeals reversed the conviction, ruling that the law was beyond the reach of the commerce power of the Congress.

Issue: Did the Congress step beyond the limits of the Commerce Clause by passing this act?

Holding: Yes

Rationale: First of all, the powers of Congress are limited and not unlimited. In Gibbons v. Ogden, the court defined commerce as interaction between states. Even in the broad ruling of Gibbons, Justice Marshall admitted that there were limits to the commerce power of the Congress and this limit is present in the word “among" the states and not within the states. In earlier cases, the court defined commerce clause to apply to activities that had direct impact on interstate commerce and activities that had indirect impact were not included. Then the court changed its view and ruled that all activities that have substantial impact on the interstate fall under the commerce clause. From the previous decisions of the court, it can be seen that Congress can regulate interstate commerce in 3 different ways:

  1. It can regulate the channels of interstate commerce.
  2. It can regulate the instrumentalities of interstate commerce.
  3. It can regulate activities that have substantial impact on interstate commerce.

The act in the current case can possibly fall under only the 3rd category. Congress argues that guns lead to violent crime and insurance coverage effects the national economy. Furthermore, guns on schools affect educational environment and that leads to less educated citizens and that affects economy. All these arguments are too indirect. If these arguments are accepted, then Congress will be able to regulate anything. The act involved in this case tried to perform a local policing function and it has no interstate commerce features. Affirmed.

Concurrence (Kennedy): “Although it is the obligation of all officers of the Government to respect the constitutional design, the federal balance is too essential a part of our constitutional structure and plays too vital a role in securing freedom for us to admit inability to intervene when one or the other level of Government has tipped the scales too far." Education is a local concern and absent some commercial link, the Congress cannot regulate it without overstepping the bounds of its power.

Concurrence (Thomas): The “substantial effect" test constructed by this court for commerce clause gives Congress a far greater power than the Framers intended it to have. According to Justice Thomas, the substantial effect test is not a test for federal power, but instead it is a blank check.

Dissent (Breyer):– The question to ask is whether the Congress could have had a rational basis for finding a significant connection between gun-related school violence and interstate commerce. Due to increased gun violence, it is reasonable to believe that the Congress did see a connection. The majority’s opinion in this case created 3 problems:

  1. It runs contrary to modern Supreme Court cases on the commerce clause
  2. the majority believes that it can reconcile its holding with earlier cases by making a critical distinction between commercial and noncommercial transactions.
  3. The court’s ruling once again brings uncertainty into this well-settled area of law.


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