United States v.  Lopez Summary | quimbee.com
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United States v. Lopez Summary | quimbee.com

– [Narrator] One day, a
high school senior named Alfonso Lopez, brought
a handgun to school. He was arrested and charged under the Gun Free
School Zones Act of 1990. The Act made it a federal
crime to knowingly possess a firearm in a school zone. Following a bench trial,
the Federal District Court convicted Lopez, and
sentenced him to prison. On appeal, Lopez argued that
the Act was unconstitutional, because it exceeded Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. The Fifth Circuit agreed,
and reversed his conviction. The United States Supreme
Court accepted the case to determine whether the Commerce Clause enabled congress to prohibit
gun ownership near schools. Writing for a five Justice majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist
concluded that the Act was unconstitutional. Rehnquist explained that
Congress can exercise its Commerce Power over
three broad categories: the channels of interstate commerce, the instrumentalities
of interstate commerce, and activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. Regulating gun possession near schools didn’t involve either
the channels of commerce, or the instrumentalities of commerce. Therefore, the Act was enforceable only if Congress had a rational basis for concluding that keeping
guns away from schools had a substantial effect
on interstate commerce. The United States argued
that violent crime resulting from gun ownership near schools, caused significant costs nationwide. Violent crime reduced
people’s willingness to travel to areas perceived as unsafe. Moreover, guns in schools threatened the learning environment, resulting in a less educated
and less productive citizenry. Therefore, a rational basis existed for concluding that gun
ownership near schools substantially affected
interstate commerce. The court rejected the
government’s position, because it suggested that
Congress’s Commerce Power had no clear limit. The court reasoned that the
government’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause would
convert Congress’s limited, enumerated power, into
a general police power. The Act’s terms had nothing
to do with commerce. The Act didn’t contain a
jurisdictional element, which would have required
federal prosecutors to link gun ownership
to interstate commerce in each specific case. Furthermore, the Act and
it’s legislative history, didn’t contain any
express findings of fact regarding the effect of gun possession on interstate commerce. Thus, no rational basis existed for concluding that gun
ownership near schools substantially affected
interstate commerce. Therefore, the court
affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that the Act
was unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy concurred,
noting that both education and gun control were areas
traditionally regulated by the states. The Act deprived states of
the opportunity to experiment with locally crafted solutions. Justice Thomas also concurred, but thought that the
substantial-effects test was too broad. The test conflicted with the historically narrow definition of commerce. Justice Stevens dissented,
observing that future commerce necessarily depended upon
providing the nation’s children with a quality education. Justice Souter also dissented. Souter argued that the majority’s test was a step backward to older, unsuccessful interpretations of the Commerce Clause, which relied on unworkable,
categorical distinctions. The lack of legislative findings didn’t change the level
of scrutiny either. While findings are helpful to the court’s rational basis analysis,
Congress is not obligated to render those findings to
pass Constitutional muster. Justice Breyer filed a
third dissenting opinion. In determining an activity’s
effect on commerce, Breyer argued that courts should consider not just one instance of the activity, but instead the cumulative
effect of all similar activities. The relevant question
was not whether, in fact, the regulated activity
substantially affected commerce, but whether Congress could
have had a rational basis for concluding as much. For Breyer, the connection
between preventing gun violence around schools and commerce was clear. Breyer cited extensive empirical evidence of gun violence in schools that interfered with delivering quality education. Given education’s effect on commerce, Congress could have rationally found that gun violence in schools
was a commercial problem. United States versus Lopez, was the first time in over half a century, that the Court limited Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. Lopez dramatically redefined the balance between state and federal power. And laid the basis for
subsequent court rulings, invalidating Congressional
attempts to regulate using the Commerce Power.


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