United States v. Lopez

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
United States v. Lopez
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued November 8, 1994
Decided April 26, 1995
Full case nameUnited States v. Alfonso Lopez, Jr.
Citations514 U.S. 549 (more)
115 S. Ct. 1624; 131 L. Ed. 2d 626; 1995 U.S. LEXIS 3039; 63 U.S.L.W. 4343; 95 Cal. Daily Op. Service 3074; 8 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 752
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorOn writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 2 F.3d 1342 (5th Cir. 1993)
Possession of a handgun near school is not an economic activity nor has a substantial effect on interstate commerce, and therefore cannot be regulated by Congress.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Case opinions
MajorityRehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas
ConcurrenceKennedy, joined by O'Connor
DissentBreyer, joined by Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3

United States v. Alfonso D. Lopez, Jr., 514 U.S. 549 (1995), was a landmark case of the United States Supreme Court concerning the Commerce Clause. It was the first case since 1937 in which the Court held that Congress had exceeded its power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.

The case arose from a San Antonio high school student's challenge to the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which banned possession of handguns near schools. In a majority decision joined by four other justices, Chief Justice William Rehnquist held that while Congress had broad lawmaking authority under the Commerce Clause, that power did not extend to the regulation of the carrying of handguns. In his dissent, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer argued that Congress could regulate handgun possession under the Commerce Clause because gun violence could have a significant effect on interstate commerce by impairing educational environments.

Though it did not reverse any past ruling about the meaning of the Commerce Clause, Lopez raised serious questions as to how far the Court might be willing to go in curbing Congress' powers under the Commerce Clause. The Court would later further limit congressional powers under the Commerce Clause in United States v. Morrison (2000). After the Lopez decision, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was amended to specifically only apply to guns that had been moved via interstate commerce.


Alfonso Lopez, Jr., was a 12th-grade student at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas. On March 10, 1992, he carried a concealed .38 caliber revolver, along with five cartridges, into the school. The gun was not loaded; Lopez claimed that he was to deliver the weapon to another person, a service for which he would receive $44.[1] He was confronted by school authorities—the school had received anonymous tips that Lopez was carrying the weapon—and admitted to having the weapon. The next day, he was charged with violating the federal[2] Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (the "Act"), 18 U.S.C. § 922(q).[3]

Lopez moved to dismiss the indictment on the ground that §922(q) of the Act was "unconstitutional as it is beyond the power of Congress to legislate control over our public schools."[4] The trial court denied the motion, ruling that §922(q) was "a constitutional exercise of Congress' well defined power to regulate activities in and affecting commerce, and the 'business' of elementary, middle and high schools...affects interstate commerce."[5]

Lopez was tried and convicted. He appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that §922(q) exceeded Congress' power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.[6] The Fifth Circuit agreed and reversed his conviction, holding that "section 922(q), in the full reach of its terms, is invalid as beyond the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause."[7] The Court of Appeals noted that the legislative history of the Act did not justify it as an exercise of the Commerce Clause power of Congress, suggesting that a new version of the Act which recited more of a nexus with interstate commerce might be devised, although what that nexus might be, is difficult to harmonize with the text of the decision, as the Court clearly stated that the situation posed only a "trivial impact" upon commerce.[8]

The United States government filed a petition for certiorari, whereby the Court has discretion to hear or to decline a particular case, for Supreme Court review and the Court accepted the case.

To sustain the Act, the government was obligated to show that §922(q) was a valid exercise of the Congressional Commerce Clause power,[9] i.e. that the section regulated a matter which "affected" (or "substantially affected")[10] interstate commerce.[11]

The government's principal argument was that the possession of a firearm in an educational environment would most likely lead to a violent crime, which in turn would affect the general economic condition in two ways. First, because violent crime causes harm and creates expense, it raises insurance costs, which are spread throughout the economy; and second, by limiting the willingness to travel in the area perceived to be unsafe. The government also argued that the presence of firearms within a school would be seen as dangerous, resulting in students' being scared and disturbed; this would, in turn, inhibit learning; and this, in turn, would lead to a weaker national economy since education is clearly a crucial element of the nation's financial health.

Supreme Court decision[edit]

In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. It held that while Congress had broad lawmaking authority under the Commerce Clause, the power was limited, and did not extend so far from "commerce" as to authorize the regulation of the carrying of handguns, of aggregate effect.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, delivering the opinion of the Court, identified the three broad categories of activity that Congress could regulate under the Commerce Clause:

  • The use of channels of interstate commerce
  • The instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce, even though the threat may come only from intrastate activities[12]
  • Activities that substantially affect or substantially relate to interstate commerce[13]

He said they had summarily dismissed any consideration of the first two categories and concluded that the resolution of the case depended only on consideration of the third category—regulation of activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. The Court essentially concluded that in no way was the carrying of handguns a commercial activity or even related to any sort of economic enterprise, even under the most extravagant definitions.[14]

The opinion rejected the government's argument that because crime negatively impacted education, Congress might have reasonably concluded that crime in schools substantially affects commerce.

The Court reasoned that if Congress could regulate something so far removed from commerce, then it could regulate anything, and since the Constitution clearly creates Congress as a body with enumerated powers, this could not be so. Rehnquist concluded:

To uphold the Government's contentions here, we 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.

The Court specifically looked to four factors in determining whether legislation represents a valid effort to use the Commerce Clause power to regulate activities that substantially affect interstate commerce:

  1. Whether the activity was non-economic as opposed to economic activity; previous cases involved economic activity
  2. Jurisdictional element: whether the gun had moved in interstate commerce
  3. Whether there had been congressional findings of an economic link between guns and education
  4. How attenuated the link was between the regulated activity and interstate commerce

Although the ruling stopped a decades-long trend of inclusiveness under the commerce clause, it did not reverse any past ruling about the meaning of the clause. Later, Rehnquist stated that the Court had the duty to prevent the legislative branch from usurping state powers over policing the conduct of their citizens. He admitted that the Supreme Court had upheld certain governmental steps towards taking power away from the states, and cited Lopez as a decision that finally stepped in to check the government's authority by defining clearly between state and federal powers.[15]

Dissenting opinions[edit]

Justice Breyer authored the principal dissenting opinion.[16] He applied three principles that he considered basic:

  1. The Commerce Clause included the power to regulate local activities so long as those "significantly affect" interstate commerce.
  2. In considering the question, a court must consider not the individual act being regulated (a single instance of gun possession), but rather the cumulative effect of all similar acts (i.e., the effect of all guns possessed in or near schools).
  3. A court must specifically determine not whether the regulated activity significantly affected interstate commerce, but whether Congress could have had a "rational basis" for so concluding.[17]

With these principles in mind, Justice Breyer asked if Congress could have rationally found that the adverse effect of violent crime in school zones, acting through the intermediary effect of degrading the quality of education, could significantly affect interstate commerce. Based on the existence of empirical studies, he answered this question affirmatively.[18] He pointed out the growing importance of education in the job market, noting that increased global competition made primary and secondary education more important.[19] He also observed that US firms make location decisions, in part, on the presence or absence of an educated work force.[20]

Justice Breyer concluded that it was obvious that gun violence could have an effect on interstate commerce. The only question remaining, then, was whether Congress could have rationally concluded that the effect could be "substantial." Congress could have rationally concluded, in Justice Breyer's judgment, that the linkage from gun violence to an impaired learning environment, and from this impaired environment to the consequent adverse economic effects, was sufficient to create a risk to interstate commerce that was "substantial."[21]

Congress, in Justice Breyer's view, 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." In his opinion, no more than this was required to find sufficient supporting power for the challenged law under the Commerce Clause, and he consequently believed that the Court of Appeals had erred and should be reversed.

In his dissent, Justice Souter warned that the distinction between "commercial" and "non-commercial" activity was not tenable. He echoed the "rational basis" theme of the Breyer dissent.[22]

Justice Stevens, in his dissent, iterated his agreement with the Breyer dissent that found ample congressional power under the Commerce Clause to regulate the possession of firearms in schools, in the same way that Congress may act to protect the school environment from alcohol or asbestos. He also agreed with Justice Souter's "exposition of the radical character of the Court's holding and its kinship with the discredited, pre-Depression version of substantive due process."[23]


Lopez was the first case since 1937 in which the Court held that Congress had exceeded its power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.[24] It raised serious questions as to how far the Court might be willing to go in implementing judicial safeguards against federal encroachments on state sovereignty.[25] The precedent takes special significance in cases that the federal government attempts to limit private conduct.[25] Commentators still postulate its possible effects on other established federal laws enacted pursuant to the Commerce Clause. The argument can be made that the significant limiting of federal power is necessary to establish a greater threshold for governmental accountability and revitalizes the role of the states in public policymaking. It can also be ascribed to new legislation that makes open carry in schools legal in some Texas jurisdictions.[26]

The case has been followed by the Supreme Court in limiting Congress' power under the Commerce Clause in a 1999 case, United States v. Morrison,[27] and under other enumerated powers in a 2001 case, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers ("SWANCC").[28][29]

Revision and re-enactment of law[edit]

Following the Lopez decision, Congress rewrote the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 with the necessary interstate-commerce "hook" used in other Federal Gun Laws. The revised Federal Gun Free School Zones Act is currently in effect and has been upheld by several United States Appellate Courts.[30][31] None of the convictions occurring under the revised law have been overturned as a result of the Lopez decision.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Court of Appeals opinion p. 4.
  2. ^ Initially Lopez was charged with the state law crime of possession of a firearm on school premises, but these charges were dismissed in favor of the federal charges.
  3. ^ The federal grand jury indicted Lopez on one count of "knowing possession of a firearm at a school zone," in violation of §922(q) of the Act.
  4. ^ 514 U.S. at 551.
  5. ^ 514 U.S. at 551-52.
  6. ^ 514 U.S. at 552.
  7. ^ United States v. Lopez, 2 F.3d 1342, 1367-68 (5th Cir. 1993).
  8. ^ "...there was no testimony [before Congressional committees] concerning the effect of [gun] violence on interstate commerce... neither [the House nor the Senate] sponsor had anything to say about commerce in their remarks... Neither [in Maryland v. Wirtz] nor in Wickard v. Filburn has the [Supreme] Court declared that Congress may use a relatively trivial impact on commerce as an excuse for broad general regulation... Indeed, it could not be otherwise as the chain of causation is virtually infinite, and hence there is no private activity, no matter how local and insignificant, the ripple effect from which is not in some theoretical measure ultimately felt beyond the borders of the state in which it took place." Lopez, 2 F.3d at 1361-62.
  9. ^ When the power of Congress is challenged, the party asserting the existence of the power — here, the Government — bears the burden of demonstrating that the power exists.
  10. ^ There was some question over the wording of the legal test, with the Court eventually opting to include the word "substantially" with "affect(s)."
  11. ^ The Court of Appeals noted how broadly the challenged section of the Act swept by its terms: "[It would] criminalize any person's carrying of an unloaded shotgun, in an unlocked pickup truck gun rack, while driving on a country road that at one turn happens to come within 950 feet of the boundary of... a church kindergarten... even during the summer when the kindergarten is not in session." Lopez, 2 F.3d at 1366.
  12. ^ For instance, Congress can regulate motor vehicles used in interstate commerce or can criminalize theft from interstate shipments, p.xx
  13. ^ "Consistent with this structure, we 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... 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."
  14. ^ "Where economic activity substantially affects interstate commerce, legislation regulating that activity will be sustained... [But] this is not an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity [and is not an activity arising] out of or connected with a commercial transaction which, when viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce... [Instead,] section 922(q) 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... States possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law... When Congress criminalizes conduct already denounced as criminal by the States, it effects a change in the sensitive relation between federal and state criminal jurisdiction." p. xxy.
  15. ^ William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, American Constitutional Interpretation, Third Edition, 2000, Ed. Walter F. Murphy, James E. Fleming, Sotirios A. Barber, and Stephen Macedo, pgs. 639-640
  16. ^ Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg joined the Breyer dissent in this 5-4 decision. As noted below, Justice Souter and Justice Stevens each wrote an additional individual dissent.
  17. ^ "[We] judge the connection between a regulated activity and interstate commerce, not directly, but at one remove." p. xx
  18. ^ "Congress could also have found ... that gun related violence in and around schools is a commercial, as well as a human, problem." p. xx.
  19. ^ p. xxy
  20. ^ . yyx
  21. ^ "Congress could have [rationally] found that gun related violence near the classroom poses a serious economic threat to [both] ... inadequately educated workers [destined for] ... low paying jobs ... and to ... businesses that might (in today's 'information society') otherwise gain ... an important commercial advantage."p. xx
  22. ^ The question ... is not... whether Congress in fact found that a particular activity substantially affects interstate commerce. The [enactment of the] legislation implies such a finding, and there is no reason to entertain claims that Congress acted ultra vires intentionally. Nor is the question whether Congress was correct in so finding. The only question is whether the legislative judgment is within the realm of reason.... Justice Breyer's opinion demonstrates beyond any doubt that the Act in question passes the rationality review [standard]. p. xxy
  23. ^ p. xxy.
  24. ^ Chemerinsky, Erwin (2015). Constitutional law--principles and policies (Fifth ed.). New York. p. 271. ISBN 9781454849476. OCLC 904400156.
  25. ^ a b Erwin Chemerinsky, Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California, Florida Law Review, "The Values of Federalism", September 1995, 46 Fla. L. Rev. 499
  26. ^ Kristin Collins, J.D., Yale Law School, Cardozo Law Review, April 2005, pg. Lexis
  27. ^ United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000).
  28. ^ Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001).
  29. ^ Lee, Joshua L. (2006) "Note: Federal Wetland Jurisdiction and the Power To Regulate Commerce: Searching for the Nexus in Gerke Excavating" Brigham Young University Law Review 2006: pp. 263-304, page 285, notes 142 & 143
  30. ^ United States v. Danks, 221 F.3d 1037 (8th Cir. 1999).
  31. ^ United States v. Dorsey, 418 F.3d 1038 (9th Cir. 2005).

External links[edit]