United States v. Lopez

From Academic Kids

United States v. Lopez, Template:Ussc was the first modern United States Supreme Court case to set limits to Congress's power under the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.


Alfonso Lopez, Jr. carried a handgun and bullets into his high school, Edison High, San Antonio, Texas. He was charged with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of (1990), 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(q).

The Supreme Court held that while Congress had broad lawmaking authority under the Commerce Clause, it was not unlimited, and did not apply to something so obviously far from commerce as carrying handguns, especially when there was no evidence that carrying them affected the economy. (A later case, United States v. Morrison (2000), ruled that Congress could not make such laws even when there was such evidence.) The decision put an end to decades of allowing the legislature to stretch the Constitutional limits of the commerce clause.


The government argued that possession of a firearm in a school zone can be expected to lead to violent crime, which can be expected to impact economy and travelling in the area, as well as to produce a citizenry with less of an education due to the distraction of the violent crime and in the long-term, a weaker economy. Thus, possession of a firearm at a school falls under jurisdiction of the Commerce Clause.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, delivering the opinion of the court, ruled that Congress had the power to regulate only:

  • the channels of commerce,
  • the instrumentalities of commerce, and
  • action that substantially affects interstate commerce.

He dismissed the government's argument, reasoning 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. He concludes:

To uphold the Government's contentions here, we would 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.

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