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United States v. Lopez

Citation. 514 U.S. 549, 115 S. Ct. 1624, 131 L. Ed. 2d 626, 1995 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Defendant, Lopez (Defendant), a high school senior, was indicted under the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (the Act). The Act prohibited knowing possession of a firearm at a place the individual has reasonable cause to believe is a school zone.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Mere possession of a firearm does not have enough of a connection to interstate commerce to support prohibition under the commerce power.


Defendant was arrested under Texas state law for bringing a .38 caliber handgun to school. The next day, state charges were dropped, and Defendant was indicted under the Act. Defendant challenged the law as an unconstitutional exercise of the commerce power.


May Congress prohibit mere possession of a firearm in a designated space under the Commerce Clause?


No. Appeals court ruling affirmed.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist) notes three broad categories of activity that Congress may regulate under the commerce power: (1) the channels of interstate commerce; (2) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce (people or things in interstate commerce) and (3) those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.
The Court argues that in the final category, an activity must “substantially affect” interstate commerce in order to be within the Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause. It is not clear by the text or by the legislative history of the statute that possessing a gun in a school zone has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.


Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) argues that the vital importance of education to commerce among the states and with foreign nations justifies the use of the commerce power to secure the educational environment.
Justice David Souter (J. Souter) argues two main points: (1) that if there is any rational basis for claiming an activity involves interstate commerce, the only judicial inquiry is whether the means are plainly adapted to the end and (2) that the Court’s decision returns Commerce Clause jurisprudence to the state it was in at the beginning of the century.
Concurrence. Justice Anthony Kennedy (J. Kennedy) concurs, but with reservations. He acknowledges that the importance of Commerce Clause jurisprudence and maintains that a stable landscape is necessary for the federal court system in general. However, he agrees there is not a significant commercial nexus in the purpose or design of the statute.
Justice Clarence Thomas (J. Thomas) concurs, but believes the Supreme Court should develop a new standard of review that better reflects the text and history of the Commerce Clause.


United States v. Lopez is a radical departure from the Commerce Clause cases from 1937 until 1995. Notably, the majority attempts to reincorporate the Commerce Clause jurisprudence from the early 20th century with the following cases, as Souter, dissenting, bemoans. In his concurrence, Kennedy hints at another hidden fear: if the Commerce Clause jurisprudence is being redefined, what does this say about the modern civil rights cases (which were all decided under the Commerce Clause)?

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