The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)


Did the Rehnquist Court strike down laws that it believed exceeded Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause?

Yes, the Rehnquist Court ruled on several occasions that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause. Generally speaking, the U.S. Supreme Court historically has been reluctant to strike down legislation that has been passed pursuant to Congress’s Commerce Clause powers. The Commerce Clause gives Congress broad power to regulate interstate commerce. For example, in the 1942 decision Wickard v. Filburn, the Court ruled that Congress had the Commerce Clause power to regulate the amount of wheat consumption produced by a private farmer.

However, in the landmark 1995 decision United States v. Lopez, the Court ruled 5–4 that Congress exceeded its Commerce Clause powers in passing the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990. The case involved high school student Alphonso Lopez Jr., who brought a gun to school. He was arrested, charged, and convicted of violating the federal gun law that made it a crime “knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in his majority opinion that the federal gun law “has nothing to do with ‘commerce’ or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define those terms.” Lopez represented the first time in more than sixty years that the Court had invalidated legislation enacted under Congress’s Commerce Clause powers.

The Rehnquist Court reached a similar result in its 2000 decision U.S. v. Morrison, a case dealing with the constitutionality of the Violence Against Women Act. The majority of the Court reasoned that Congress once again exceeded its powers under the Commerce Clause because gender-based violence against women was not a commercial or economic activity. The majority reasoned that state governments, not the federal government, should pass legislation dealing with such problems.


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