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United States v. Lopez (1995)

Last Updated: 2006

In United States v. Lopez (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal “Gun-Free School Zones Act” was unconstitutional. The Court ruled that the statute was not within Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce under Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. The case is significant because it marked the first time since the New Deal, sixty years earlier, that the Court has struck down a federal statute for exceeding Congress’s commerce power.

The origins of the case can be traced to March 10, 1992, when school officials at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas, caught twelfth grader Alfonso Lopez Jr. with an unloaded .38 caliber handgun and five bullets. Lopez claimed that he was being paid to transport the gun to someone else. He was initially charged with violating a state law making it illegal to bring guns to school, but federal prosecutors later asserted jurisdiction and charged Lopez with violating the recently enacted federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. That statute made it a federal crime to possess a gun in “school zones,” defined as all areas within “1000 feet from the grounds of . . . a school,” and including the school grounds themselves. Lopez was convicted in a federal trial court, but eventually appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority in a closely divided 5–4 decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist acknowledged that since the New Deal in the 1930’s, the Supreme Court had interpreted Congress’s commerce power very broadly, consistently holding that Congress has broad powers to regulate even local activities that have “substantial effects” on interstate commerce. However, Rehnquist stated that the Court would have to pile “inference upon inference” in order to conclude that the mere possession of guns (or anything else for that matter) in or near local schools could be characterized as interstate commerce. Thus, the Court determined that the possession of guns in local schools could not be considered within one of Congress’s Article I enumerated powers, and therefore it must be left to states and localities to regulate. Joining Rehnquist in the majority were Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. The dissenters in the case, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, claimed that the Court was unduly and improperly attempting to draw judicially imposed lines around federal legislative powers.

Although Lopez is noteworthy for being the first case in six decades in which the Supreme Court found limits to Congress’s commerce power, it is also important for effectively marking the beginning of what some have dubbed the Rehnquist Court’s “federalism revolution,” consisting of a series of federalism decisions handed down by the Rehnquist Court throughout the remainder of the 1990’s. In addition to reestablishing limits to federal power under the Commerce Clause, the Court, usually with the same 5–4 split as in the Lopez case, has since sought to limit congressional authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment (e.g., City of Boerne v. Flores 1995 and United States v. Morrison 2000), enhance state immunity from civil suits under the Eleventh Amendment (e.g., Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida 1996 and Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents 2000), and prohibit federal laws that intrude on the states’ sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment (e.g., New York v. United States 1992 and Printz v. United States1997). These and other cases have sparked contentious debates within the Court and among commentators over the Court’s proper role in defining the scope of federal powers.

SEE ALSO: NewYork v. United StatesPrintz v. United StatesTenth Amendment


Steven G. Calabresi, “A Government of Limited and Enumerated Powers: In Defense of United States v. Lopez,” Michigan Law Review 94 (1995): 752–831; City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1995); Ruth Colker and James Brudney, “Dissing Congress,” University of Michigan Law Review100 (2001): 80–144; Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62 (2000); New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992); J. Mitchell Pickerill, Constitutional Deliberation in Congress: The Impact of Judicial Review in a Separated System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); J. Mitchell Pickerill and Cornell W. Clayton, “The Rehnquist Court and the Political Dynamics of Federalism,” Perspectives on Politics 2 (June 2004): 233–48; Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997); Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996); United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995); and United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000).