Wickard v. Filburn

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Wickard v. Filburn
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued May 4, 1942
Reargued October 12, 1942
Decided November 9, 1942
Full case name Claude R. Wickard, Secretary of Agriculture, et al. v. Roscoe C. Filburn
Citations 317 U.S. 111 (more)
63 S. Ct. 82; 87 L. Ed. 122; 1942 U.S. LEXIS 1046
Prior history Injunction granted to plaintiff, Filburn v. Helke, 43 F. Supp. 1017 (S.D. Ohio 1942)
Production quotas under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 were constitutionally applied to agricultural production that was consumed purely intrastate, because its effect upon interstate commerce placed it within the power of Congress to regulate under the Commerce Clause. Southern District of Ohio reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Harlan F. Stone
Associate Justices
Owen J. Roberts · Hugo Black
Stanley F. Reed · Felix Frankfurter
William O. Douglas · Frank Murphy
James F. Byrnes · Robert H. Jackson
Case opinions
Majority Jackson, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. I, V; 7 U.S.C. § 1281, et. seq. (1941) (Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938)

Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), was a United States Supreme Court decision that dramatically increased the regulatory power of the federal government. It remains as one of the most important and far-reaching cases concerning the New Deal, and set a precedent for an expansive reading of the United States Constitution's Commerce Clause for decades to come. The goal of the business interests that financed the legal challenge all the way to the Supreme Court was to convince the court to declare the entire federal crop support program unconstitutional and thereby end it.[1] By the time the case reached the high court, eight out of the nine justices had been appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal legislation. In addition, the case was heard during wartime, shortly after the United States had entered World War II.[2][3] The Filburn decision supported the president's policy, holding that the Constitution allowed the federal government to regulate economic activity that was only indirectly related to interstate commerce.

An Ohio farmer, Roscoe Filburn, was growing wheat to feed animals on his own farm. The U.S. government had established limits on wheat production based on acreage owned by a farmer, in order to stabilize wheat prices and supplies. Filburn grew more than the limits he was permitted and was ordered to pay a penalty. In response, he said that his wheat was not sold, so his activity could not be regulated as commerce, let alone "interstate" commerce (described in the Constitution as "Commerce...among the several states"). The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that, "Whether the subject of the regulation in question was 'production', 'consumption', or 'marketing' is, therefore, not material for purposes of deciding the question of federal power before us...[b]ut even if appellee's activity be local and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce and this irrespective of whether such effect is what might at some earlier time have been defined as 'direct' or 'indirect.'"[4]

The Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution's Commerce Clause under Article 1 Section 8, which permits the United States Congress "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." The Court decided that Filburn's wheat-growing activities reduced the amount of wheat he would buy for animal feed on the open market, which is traded nationally (interstate), and is therefore within the scope of the Commerce Clause. Although Filburn's relatively small amount of production of more wheat than he was allotted would not affect interstate commerce itself, the cumulative actions of thousands of other farmers just like Filburn would certainly become substantial. Therefore, according to the court, Filburn's production could be regulated by the federal government.


The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 limited the area that farmers could devote to wheat production. The stated purpose of the act was to stabilize the price of wheat in the national market by controlling the amount of wheat produced. The motivation behind the Act was a belief by Congress that great international fluctuations in the supply and demand for wheat were leading to wide swings in the price of wheat, which were deemed to be harmful to the U.S. agricultural economy. The Supreme Court's decision states that the parties had stipulated as to the economic conditions leading to passage of the legislation:

The parties have stipulated a summary of the economics of the wheat industry ... The wheat industry has been a problem industry for some years. Largely as a result of increased foreign production and import restrictions, annual exports of wheat and flour from the United States during the ten-year period ending in 1940 averaged less than 10 percent of total production, while, during the 1920s, they averaged more than 25 percent. The decline in the export trade has left a large surplus in production which, in connection with an abnormally large supply of wheat and other grains in recent years, caused congestion in a number of markets; tied up railroad cars, and caused elevators in some instances to turn away grains, and railroads to institute embargoes to prevent further congestion.

Many countries, both importing and exporting, have sought to modify the impact of the world market conditions on their own economy. Importing countries have taken measures to stimulate production and self-sufficiency. The four large exporting countries of Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the United States have all undertaken various programs for the relief of growers. Such measures have been designed, in part at least, to protect the domestic price received by producers. Such plans have generally evolved towards control by the central government. In the absence of regulation, the price of wheat in the United States would be much affected by world conditions. During 1941, producers who cooperated with the Agricultural Adjustment program received an average price on the farm of about $1.16 a bushel, as compared with the world market price of 40 cents a bushel.

Roscoe Filburn was a farmer in what is now suburban Dayton, Ohio[5] who admitted producing wheat in excess of the amount permitted. He maintained, however, that the excess wheat was produced for his private consumption on his own farm. Since it never entered commerce at all, much less interstate commerce, he argued that it was not a proper subject of federal regulation under the Commerce Clause.

In July 1940, pursuant to the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1938, Filburn's 1941 allotment was established at 11.1 acres (4.5 ha) and a normal yield of 20.1 bushels of wheat per acre. Filburn was given notice of the allotment in July 1940 before the Fall planting of his 1941 crop of wheat, and again in July 1941, before it was harvested. Despite these notices, Filburn planted 23 acres (9.3 ha) and harvested 239 more bushels than was allowed from his 11.9 acres (4.8 ha) of excess area.[6]

The Federal District Court ruled in favor of Filburn. The Act required an affirmative vote of farmers by plebiscite to implement the quota. Much of the District Court decision related to the way in which the Secretary of Agriculture had campaigned for passage: The District Court had held that the Secretary's comments were improper. The government then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which called the District Court's holding against the campaign methods which led to passage of the quota by farmers a "manifest error". The court then went on to uphold the Act under the Interstate Commerce Clause.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

The intended rationale of the Agricultural Adjustment Act was to stabilize the price of wheat on the national market. The federal government has the power to regulate interstate commerce through the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In Filburn the Court unanimously reasoned that the power to regulate the price at which commerce occurs was inherent in the power to regulate commerce.

Filburn argued that since the excess wheat he produced was intended solely for home consumption, his wheat production could not be regulated through the Interstate Commerce Clause. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, reasoning that if Filburn had not used home-grown wheat, he would have had to buy wheat on the open market. This effect on interstate commerce, the Court reasoned, may not be substantial from the actions of Filburn alone but, through the cumulative actions of thousands of other farmers just like Filburn, its effect would certainly become substantial. Therefore, Congress could regulate wholly intrastate, non-commercial activity if such activity, viewed in the aggregate, would have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, even if the individual effects are trivial.

Some of the parties' argument had focused on prior decisions, especially dormant Commerce Clause decisions, in which the Court had tried to focus on whether a commercial activity was local or not local. Justice Robert H. Jackson's decision rejects that approach as too formulaic:

The Government's concern lest the Act be held to be a regulation of production or consumption rather than of marketing is attributable to a few dicta and decisions of this Court which might be understood to lay it down that activities such as "production", "manufacturing", and "mining" are strictly "local" and, except in special circumstances which are not present here, cannot be regulated under the commerce power because their effects upon interstate commerce are, as matter of law, only "indirect". Even today, when this power has been held to have great latitude, there is no decision of this Court that such activities may be regulated where no part of the product is intended for interstate commerce or intermingled with the subjects thereof. We believe that a review of the course of decision under the Commerce Clause will make plain, however, that questions of the power of Congress are not to be decided by reference to any formula which would give controlling force to nomenclature such as "production" and "indirect" and foreclose consideration of the actual effects of the activity in question upon interstate commerce.

The issue was not how one characterized the activity as local, but rather whether the activity "exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce":

Whether the subject of the regulation in question was "production", "consumption", or "marketing" is, therefore, not material for purposes of deciding the question of federal power before us. That an activity is of local character may help in a doubtful case to determine whether Congress intended to reach it ... But even if appellee's activity be local and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce and this irrespective of whether such effect is what might at some earlier time have been defined as "direct" or "indirect".

Here, the regulation of local production of wheat was rationally related to Congress's goal: to stabilize prices by limiting the total supply of wheat produced and consumed. It was clear, the Court held,

that a factor of such volume and variability as home-consumed wheat would have a substantial influence on price and market conditions. ... Home-grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce. The stimulation of commerce is a use of the regulatory function quite as definitely as prohibitions or restrictions thereon. This record leaves us in no doubt that Congress may properly have considered that wheat consumed on the farm where grown, if wholly outside the scheme of regulation, would have a substantial effect in defeating and obstructing its purpose to stimulate trade therein at increased prices.

Wickard marked the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court's total deference to Congress' claims of Commerce Clause powers. This deference lasted until the 1990s. The Court's own decision, however, emphasizes the role of the democratic electoral process in confining the abuse of the Congressional power, stating that, "At the beginning Chief Justice Marshall described the Federal commerce power with a breadth never yet exceeded. He made emphatic the embracing and penetrating nature of this power by warning that effective restraints on its exercise must proceed from political rather than from judicial processes."

Subsequent developments[edit]

According to Earl M. Maltz, Filburn and other New Deal decisions gave Congress "the authority to regulate private economic activity in a manner near limitless in its purview."[7] This remained the case until United States v. Lopez (1995), which was the first decision in six decades to invalidate a federal statute on the grounds that it exceeded the power of the Congress under the Commerce Clause. The opinion described Wickard v. Filburn as "perhaps the most far reaching example of Commerce Clause authority over intrastate commerce", and judged that it "greatly expanded the authority of Congress beyond what is defined in the Constitution under that Clause".

In Lopez, the Court 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, especially when there was no evidence that carrying them affected the economy on a massive scale.[8]

The Supreme Court has since relied heavily on Filburn in upholding the power of the federal government to prosecute individuals who grow their own medicinal marijuana pursuant to state law. The Supreme Court subsequently held that, as with the home-grown wheat at issue in the present case, home-grown marijuana is a legitimate subject of federal regulation because it competes with marijuana that moves in interstate commerce. As the Court explained in Gonzales v. Raich (2005):

Wickard thus establishes that Congress can regulate purely intrastate activity that is not itself "commercial", in that it is not produced for sale, if it concludes that failure to regulate that class of activity would undercut the regulation of the interstate market in that commodity.

In 2012, Filburn was central to arguments in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and Florida v. United States Department of Health and Human Services regarding the constitutionality of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, with both supporters and opponents of the mandate claiming that Filburn supported their positions.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jonathan R.T. Hughes (2014). The Governmental Habit Redux: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the Present. Princeton University Press. p. 168. 
  2. ^ America's Great Depression; http://www.amatecon.com/gd/gdtimeline
  3. ^ "In times of war, this Court has deferred to a considerable extent—and properly so—to the military and to the Executive Branch."; Nos. 03-334, 03-343, SHAFIQ RASUL v. GEORGE W. BUSH, FAWZI KHALID ABDULLAH FAHAD AL ODAH v. UNITED STATES, On Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit BRIEF AMICUS CURIAE OF RETIRED MILITARY OFFICERS IN SUPPORT OF PETITIONERS, MIRNA ADJAMI JAMES C. SCHROEDER, Midwest Immigrant and Counsel of Record Human Rights Center. (January 2004)
  4. ^ Wickard, Sect. of Agriculture, et al. v. Filburn, 317 US 111(1945) at 125.
  5. ^ de Vogue, Ariane (January 30, 2012). "Long Dead Ohio Farmer, Roscoe Filburn, Plays Crucial Role in Health Care Fight". ABC News. Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  6. ^ Chen, James (2003). "Filburn's Legacy". SSRN 901026Freely accessible. 
  7. ^ Earl M. Maltz as quoted in footnote 223 of Chen (2003).
  8. ^ In a later case, United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the Court ruled that Congress could not make such laws even when there was evidence of aggregate effect
  9. ^ Liptak, Adam (March 19, 2012). "At Heart of Health Law Clash, a 1942 Case of a Farmer's Wheat". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-02-12. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Chen, Jim (2003). "Filburn's Legacy". Emory Law Journal. 52: 1719. SSRN 901026Freely accessible. 
  • Chen, Jim (2009). "The Story of Wickard v. Filburn: Agriculture, Aggregation, and Commerce". SSRN 1268162Freely accessible.  In Dorf, Michael C. (2009). Constitutional Law Stories. Foundation Press. 
  • Epstein, Richard A. (2006). How Progressives Rewrote the Constitution. Washington: Cato Institute. ISBN 1-930865-87-2. 
  • Kommers, D. P.; Finn, J. E.; Jacobsohn, G. J. (2004). American Constitutional Law. 2 (2nd ed.). Boston: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-2688-7. 
  • Natelson, Robert (2006). "The Legal Meaning of 'Commerce' in the Commerce Clause" (PDF). St. John's Law Review. 80: 790. 

External links[edit]