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The Top 12 Commerce Clause Cases
Commerce Clause
Political Studies

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Cohens v. Virginia (1821)
Background: An act of Congress authorized the operation of a lottery in the District of Columbia. The Cohen brothers proceeded to sell D.C. lottery tickets in the state of Virginia, violating state law. State authorities tried and convicted the Cohens, and then declared themselves to be the final arbiters of disputes between the states and the national government.

Holding: Though the main aspect of this case was Marshall creating Federal review of State criminal proceedings, the case also dealt with commerce through the selling of lottery tickets. In regards to commerce, Marshall held that VA could fine the Cohen brothers for selling lottery tickets in the state, as the state forbade such action, but the state court could not deem itself the final arbiter as the Supreme Court can hear any case with a constitutional question.
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
Holding: The Court found that intrastate activity could be regulated under the Commerce Clause where it was part of a larger interstate commercial scheme.

Significance: Marshall’s broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause was intended to be in line with the Framers view of the ends of government. Because the federal government was to promote economic prosperity by eliminating state barriers to economic activity and creating a national market for goods and services, Congress must have been provided with the powers necessary to accomplish this purpose. According to Marshall, the Commerce Clause also paved the way for wide scope congressional regulation. The power to regulate is “the power to prescribe the rules by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the Constitution.”
United States v. E.C. Knight Company (1895)
Background: The Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 as a response to the public concern in the growth of giant corporations controlling transportation, industry, and commerce. The E.C. Knight Company was such a combination controlling over 98% of the sugar-refining business in the United States.

Question: Did Congress exceed its constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause when it enacted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act?

Holding: The Act was constitutional, but it did not apply to manufacturing. Manufacturing was not commerce; the law did not reach the admitted monopolization of manufacturing (in this case, refining sugar). The trust did not lead to control of interstate commerce and so "affects it only incidentally and indirectly."

Significance: Here we see a court hesitant to over extend the state's power to regulate commerce. Furthermore, because the sugar manufacturing was confined to a single state it was intrastate commerce which was left for states to monitor, not the Federal government.
Because the Federal government was confined to only interstate commerce (trade among the several states) the Act was insufficient to regulate the sugar-refining empire.
Champion v. Ames (1903)
Background: The defendants in the case were arrested and convicted under an act of Congress of 1895 that made it illegal to send or conspire to send lottery tickets across state lines.

Question: Did the transport of lottery tickets by independent carriers constitute "commerce" that Congress could regulate under the Commerce Clause?

Holding: In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that lottery tickets were indeed "subjects of traffic," and that independent carriers may be regulated under the Commerce Clause. The Court emphasized the broad discretion Congress enjoys in regulating commerce, noting that this power "is plenary, is complete in itself, and is subject to no limitations except such as may be found in the Constitution." The Court argued that Congress was merely assisting those states that wished to protect public morals by prohibiting lotteries within their borders.

Significance: This is not necessarily an over extension of the commerce clause, but it did apply the clause to individual sellers, not corporations. Applies the Commerce Clause for the first time to individual persons conducting commerce.
Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)
Background: The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act prohibited the interstate shipment of goods produced by child labor. Reuben Dagenhart's father -- Roland -- had sued on behalf of his freedom to allow his fourteen year old son to work in a textile mill.

Question: Does the congressional act violate the Commerce Clause, the Tenth Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment?

Holding: Day spoke for the Court majority and found two grounds to invalidate the law. Production was not commerce, and thus outside the power of Congress to regulate. And the regulation of production was reserved by the Tenth Amendment to the states. Day wrote that "the powers not expressly delegated to the national government are reserved" to the states and to the people. In his wording, Day revised the Constitution slightly and changed the intent of the framers: The Tenth Amendment does not say "expressly." The framers purposely left the word expressly out of the amendment because they believed they could not possibly specify every power that might be needed in the future to run the government.

Significance: Again, here we see a hesitancy on the part of the Court to regulate a sector of the economy for two reasons; first, manufacturing was not yet deemed as commerce, though it would soon become a part of it, and second, that such manufacturing was left to the state’s regulatory interests.
Whether or not this is a proper reading of the Tenth Amendment is debatable.
Schecter Poultry Corps v. United States (1935)
Background: Section 3 of the National Industrial Recovery Act empowered the President to implement industrial codes to regulate weekly employment hours, wages, and minimum ages of employees. The codes had standing as penal statutes. The government claimed the Schechters sold sick poultry, which has led to the case becoming known as "the sick chicken case,” and Schecter was charged under the NIRA.

Question: Did Congress unconstitutionally delegate legislative power to the President?

Holding: The Court held that Section 3 was "without precedent" and violated the Constitution. The law did not establish rules or standards to evaluate industrial activity. In other words, it did not make codes, but simply empowered the President to do so. A unanimous Court found this to be an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority.

Significance: After the decision was announced, newspapers reported that 500 cases of NIRA (est. 1933) code violations were going to be dropped. Though many considered the NIRA a "dead statute" at this point in the New Deal scheme, the Court used its invalidation as an opportunity to affirm constitutional limits on congressional power, for fear that it could otherwise reach virtually anything that could be said to "affect" interstate commerce and intrude on many areas of legitimate state power.
NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937)
Background: With the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, Congress determined that labor-management disputes were directly related to the flow of interstate commerce and, thus, could be regulated by the national government. In this case, the National Labor Relations Board charged the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. with discriminating against employees who were union members.

Question: Was the Act consistent with the Commerce Clause? Could Congress say/expand what commerce was?

Holding: Yes. The Court held that the Act was narrowly constructed so as to regulate industrial activities which had the potential to restrict interstate commerce. The justices abandoned their claim that labor relations had only an indirect effect on commerce. Since the ability of employees to engage in collective bargaining (one activity protected by the Act) is "an essential condition of industrial peace," the national government was justified in penalizing corporations engaging in interstate commerce which "refuse to confer and negotiate" with their workers.

Significance: Here we see a modest change to the idea of the New Deal era justices. They abandoned their view of commerce as commerce and expanded it to mean “potential” effects on commerce.
Wickard v. Filburn (1942)
Background: Filburn was a small farmer in Ohio. He was given a wheat acreage allotment of 11.1 acres under a Department of Agriculture directive which authorized the government to set production quotas for wheat. Filburn harvested nearly 12 acres of wheat above his allotment. He claimed that he wanted the wheat for use on his farm, including feed for his poultry and livestock. Filburn was penalized. He argued that the excess wheat was unrelated to commerce since he grew it for his own use.

Question: Is the amendment subjecting Filburn to acreage restrictions in violation of the Constitution because Congress has no power to regulate activities local in nature?

Holding: According to Filburn, the act regulated production and consumption, which are local in character. The rule laid down by Justice Jackson is that even if an activity is local and not 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.'"

Implications: And here we see the complete departure of a minimized reading of the commerce clause. The court would go from this case (1942) until Lopez (1995), or 53 years before it struck down another piece of legislation challenged on commerce grounds.
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964)
Background: Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade racial discrimination by places of public accommodation if their operations affected commerce. The Heart of Atlanta Motel in Atlanta, Georgia, refused to accept Black Americans and was charged with violating Title II.

Question: Did Congress, in passing Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, exceed its Commerce Clause powers by depriving motels, such as the Heart of Atlanta, of the right to choose their own customers?

Holding: The Court held that the Commerce Clause allowed Congress to regulate local incidents of commerce, and that the Civil Right Act of 1964 passed constitutional muster. The Court noted that the applicability of Title II was "carefully limited to enterprises having a direct and substantial relation to the interstate flow of goods and people. . ." The Court thus concluded that places of public accommodation had no "right" to select guests as they saw fit, free from governmental regulation.

Significance: Still here we have a broad interpretation of the commerce clause as even “effects on interstate” is considered interstate.
United States v. Lopez (1995)
Background: Alfonzo Lopez, a 12th grade high school student, carried a concealed weapon into his San Antonio, Texas high school. He was charged under Texas law with firearm possession on school premises. The next day, the state charges were dismissed after federal agents charged Lopez with violating a federal criminal statute, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The act forbids "any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] a school zone." Lopez was found guilty following a bench trial and sentenced to six months' imprisonment and two years' supervised release.

Question: Is the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, forbidding individuals from knowingly carrying a gun in a school zone, unconstitutional because it exceeds the power of Congress to legislate under the Commerce Clause?

Holding: Yes. The possession of a gun in a local school zone is not an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The law is a criminal statute that has nothing to do with "commerce" or any sort of economic activity.

Significance: The Court, however, found previous arguments to create a dangerous slippery slope: what would prevent the federal government from then regulating any activity that might lead to violent crime, regardless of its connection to interstate commerce, because it imposed social costs? What would prevent Congress from regulating any activity that might bear on a person's economic productivity?
After the Lopez decision, the act was amended to specifically only apply to guns that had been moved via interstate commerce, where it might be legitimately regulated.
Gonzalez v. Reich (2005)
Background: In 1996 California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing marijuana for medical use. California's law conflicted with the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which banned possession of marijuana. After the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized doctor-prescribed marijuana from a patient's home, a group of medical marijuana users sued the DEA and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in federal district court.
The medical marijuana users argued the Controlled Substances Act - which Congress passed using its constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce - exceeded Congress' commerce clause power.

Question: Does the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801) exceed Congress' power under the commerce clause as applied to the intrastate cultivation and possession of marijuana for medical use?

Holding: No. In a 6-3 opinion delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court held that the commerce clause gave Congress authority to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana, despite state law to the contrary. Stevens argued that the Court's precedent “firmly established" Congress' commerce clause power to regulate purely local activities that are part of a "class of activities" with a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The majority argued that Congress could ban local marijuana use because it was part of such a “class of activities": the national marijuana market. Local use affected supply and demand in the national marijuana market, making the regulation of intrastate use "essential" to regulating the drug's national market. The majority distinguished the case from Lopez and Morrison. In those cases, statutes regulated non-economic activity and fell entirely outside Congress' commerce power; in this case, the Court was asked to strike down a particular application of a valid statutory scheme (that was also economic in nature).
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
Background: In 1816, Congress chartered The Second Bank of the United States. In 1818, the state of Maryland passed legislation to impose taxes on the bank. James W. McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the bank, refused to pay the tax.

Question: Did Congress have the authority to establish the bank? Did the Maryland law unconstitutionally interfere with congressional powers?

Holding: In a unanimous decision, the Court held that Congress had the power to incorporate the bank and that Maryland could not tax instruments of the national government employed in the execution of constitutional powers. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Marshall noted that Congress possessed unenumerated powers not explicitly outlined in the Constitution. Marshall also held that while the states retained the power of taxation, "the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof are supreme. . .they control the Constitution and laws of the respective states, and cannot be controlled by them."

Significance: Marshall acknowledges the Constitutional power of the national government to achieve broad ends.
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