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United States v. Morrison

Citation. 529 U.S. 598, 120 S.Ct. 1740, 146 L.Ed.2d 658 (2000).
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Citation. 529 U.S. 598, 120 S.Ct. 1740, 146 L.Ed.2d 658 (2000).

Brief Fact Summary.

Morrison alleged that Congress exceeded its powers under the Commerce Clause in enacting the Violence Against Women Act.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Congress may not aggregate noneconomic, intrastate activity under its Commerce Clause power.


Brzonkala alleged that Morrison, a member of the Virginia Tech football team, raped her and made demeaning remarks about women.  She alleged that Morrison violated the Violence Against Women Act, entitling her to damages under Section 13981 of the Act.  Congress argued that it had the authority to enact the Act under the Commerce Clause.


Whether Congress exceeded its Commerce Clause powers in enacting the Violence Against Women Act.


CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST holding:  Yes.  Congress infringed upon state police powers by regulating wholly intrastate, noneconomic activity.


Justice Souter

Justice Souter argued that the Court’s prior cases prove that Congress can aggregate the effects of an activity to bring it within its Commerce Clause power.  It is not for the Court to decide whether the evidence was sufficient, that is for Congress.  This case was distinct from United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995) because, here, there was years worth of data proving how violence against women impacted interstate commerce.

Further, the majority, by requiring a “commercial purpose,” was revitalizing the “intent-based analysis” rejected by the Court in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States,379 U.S. 241 (1964).  In Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), the Court aggregated the impact of wheat grown for personal consumption despite personally consumed wheat not fitting in the traditional definition of “commerce.”

The majority’s overly formalistic view was seeking to serve a flawed “conception of federalism.”  The Framers shared the belief that Congress’ Commerce Clause powers were to be limited not by the Court, but by the political processes.  Finally, the Court argued that it was protecting state interests by limiting Congress, but “38 States urged Congress to enact the [Act].”

Justice Breyer

Justice Breyer reasoned that the “economic/noneconomic” distinction was too hard to apply, especially given the exceptions to it.  The majority acknowledged that “noneconomic activity” could be aggregated, and thus regulated by Congress, if it took place at a business.  See Heart of Atlanta Motel, 379 U.S. 241 (1964).  Congress could also regulate noneconomic activity when it is “an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity.”  Thus, Congress could likely save the Act by limiting it to businesses or by including it in a broader “Workplace Safety” act.

Finally, the Constitution mentions only “commerce,” so the majority should not have given the “economic or noneconomic” distinction constitutional significance.  While the majority was correct in its prediction that, under the Commerce Clause, practically any local activity could be aggregated and then regulated by Congress, this merely reflects reality and does not mean that the Court made a mistake in failing to limit Congress.  Congress needs to address activities that impact interstate commerce, and it is up to Congress to balance state and federal interests.


Justice Thomas

Justice Thomas wrote separately to impress the idea that the Federal Government believes its powers under the Commerce Clause are limitless.  He would greatly narrow the Commerce Clause powers to something “more consistent with the [Framers’] original understanding.”


In rejecting the Act, Rehnquist relied heavily on the Court’s earlier decision, United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995).  In Lopez, the Court limited Congress’ Commerce Clause power to three discrete categories:  Congress can regulate (1) “the use of the channels of interstate commerce,” (2) “the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce,” and (3) “those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.”

In Lopez, the Government sought to make it a federal offense to possess a gun in a school zone, but the Court struck the law down for four main reasons.  First, it was a criminal statute, having “nothing to do with commerce or any sort of economic enterprise.”  Second, the statute did not contain a “jurisdictional element” which would have limited the statute’s scope to make it more aligned with Congress’ Commerce Clause powers.  Third, Congress did not explain how possessing a gun in a school zone impacted interstate commerce.  Finally, the Court rejected Congress’ “but-for” reasoning, reasoning that “the link between gun possession and a substantial effect on interstate commerce was attenuated.”

Similarly, the Violence Against Women Act concerned noneconomic activity (gender-based crimes) and did not contain a jurisdictional element that would have limited the statute’s scope.  In footnote, Rehnquist clarified that certain provisions of the Act did contain jurisdictional elements.  See Section 40221(a):  “A person who travels across a State line . . . to injure, harass, or intimidate . . . .”  These provisions were within Congress’ Commerce Clause powers as regulations of “the use of channels of interstate commerce.”  However, because Section 13981 did not contain a jurisdictional element, it was not “sufficiently tied to interstate commerce.”

Conversely, the Violence Against Women Act did include findings on how gender-based violence impacts interstate commerce.  Specifically, Congress found that gender-based violence “deter[s] potential victims from traveling interstate . . . .” The Court, however, found these findings insufficient, reasoning that the Court, not Congress, must be the one to decide whether Congress is acting within its constitutional bounds.  The Court further reasoned that the ties between gender-based violence and interstate commerce were too attenuated, and this line of “but-for” causation had already been rejected in Lopez.  If the Court were to allow Congress to justify its actions under this extended rationale, the Commerce Clause would grant Congress authority to regulate any crime, thus impermissibly infringing upon state police power.

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