United States v. Lopez: Case Brief & Summary

Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

This lesson explores the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Following the case brief are questions to test your understanding.

From One State to Another

The states in the U.S. may each have their own laws, but they're also extremely interconnected -- especially when it comes to commerce. Just take a look around your local grocery store. You won't see foods from just within your own state available; instead, you're likely to see oranges from Florida, potatoes from Idaho, and avocados from California. You can buy these foods because of interstate commerce (or goods and people moving across state lines).

The Commerce Clause, found in Article I of the Constitution, grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. This relates to more than just food. It also includes communications, transportation, and business transactions that affect various states. Many cases from the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) over the past 200 years have tried to clarify what it means to regulate commerce. United States v Lopez (1995) addressed the issue of Congress' ability to criminalize activities on school grounds.

Facts

Alfonso Lopez, a 12th grade student in San Antonio, Texas, carried a .38 caliber handgun onto school property. The police received a tip that Lopez was carrying a weapon, so he was questioned and searched. Upon finding the gun, the police placed him under arrest for carrying a gun on school grounds, in violation of Texas law. The charges were dismissed the next day and Lopez was charged federally for violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, a federal law which prohibited the possession of a firearm on school grounds.

Lopez was indicted by a grand jury. He challenged the indictment, arguing that Congress has no power to regulate conduct at schools. The government argued that guns in school would lead to violent crimes, which would in turn affect economic activities (and therefore fell under the Commerce Clause). The court agreed, denied Lopez's motion and set his case for trial. After a bench trial (where the judge, as opposed to a jury, decides guilt) Lopez was convicted. He was then sentenced to six months in prison and two years of supervised release.

Lopez appealed his decision, again stating that Congress no power to regulate schools. The Court of Appeals reversed Lopez's conviction, holding that Congress overreached its powers. Because this case dealt with an unclear law, SCOTUS decided to review the Court of Appeals' decision and issued a writ of certiorari.

Issue

Does the Commerce Clause of the Constitution give Congress the power to regulate schools?

Holding

No. Congress overreached its authority in regulating schools as a form of interstate commerce.

Ruling

The Constitution grants certain powers to the federal government, but most powers are left up to the states to regulate through the Tenth Amendment. Prior SCOTUS cases have limited the Commerce Clause to apply in three categories.

  • Congress can regulate the channels (the way things are moved) of interstate commerce. This includes trains, interstates, shipping, among other methods.
  • Congress can regulate the instrumentalities (people and things involved) of interstate commerce.
  • Congress can regulate activities having a substantial relationship to interstate commerce.

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