Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

Street Law /

Modern Debate over the Commerce Clause: The Case of U.S. v. Lopez (1995)

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed a major crime bill, which featured a section called the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, forbidding "any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows . . . is a school zone," 18 U.S.C. 922(q)(1)(A). The act was passed amid concerns about violence, particularly gun violence, in the nation's schools.

When considering whether a new law should be passed, Congress not only has to consider whether the law is a good idea, but also whether the law is constitutional. When we say that the law is constitutional, we mean not only that the law itself is allowed by the U.S. Constitution, but also that Congress has the power to pass that law.

Most people certainly agreed that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was a good idea. Guns in a school zone increase the likelihood that a young person will be seriously hurt or even killed. However, soon after the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was passed, there was a constitutional challenge to this law. On March 10, 1992, a twelfth-grade student named Lopez arrived at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas with a concealed .38 caliber handgun and five bullets. After receiving an anonymous tip, school authorities confronted Lopez, who admitted that he was carrying the weapon. The next day, he was charged by federal prosecutors with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990.

Lopez tried to get the case dismissed on the basis that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 violated the U.S. Constitution because Congress did not have the power under the Commerce Clause to pass such a law. The District Court denied his motion, stating that the Act was a constitutional exercise of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. Lopez was found guilty in the District Court and was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and two years of supervised release. The case was appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the District Court's decision. The Court of Appeals held that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was beyond Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Directions

Considering Chief Justice Marshall's decision in the Gibbons v. Ogden case, as well as previous laws that have been passed relying on the Commerce Clause as their basis, what arguments could be made in favor of Lopez (the act is unconstitutional)? What arguments could be made in favor of the United States (the act is constitutional)?

Read the following excerpt from the decision and answer the Questions to Consider below:

Questions to consider
  1. Justice Rehnquist cites three important first principles on which the decision in this case is based. What are they?
  2. Justice Rehnquist says that the Jones case ushered in an era where Congress`s power has greatly expanded. According to Rehnquist, what accounts for this expansion of power?
  3. What limits are there on Congress`s authority, according to Rehnquist?
  4. What argument does the United States make to support their case that the Gun-Free School Zones Act substantially affects interstate commerce? Would you characterize this argument as a strict or a loose interpretation of the Commerce Clause power?
  5. In challenging the argument of the United States, Justice Rehnquist uses the slippery slope rationale. What does Justice Rehnquist contend? Do you agree or disagree? Explain.
  6. If the Supreme Court of the United States doesn't uphold the Gun-Free School Zones Act, who still has the authority to pass laws restricting gun possession in school zones?
< Gibbons v. Ogden