During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term as president (1933–37), the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly declared portions of the New Deal unconstitutional, holding that the economic activity that Congress was attempting to control was purely local in nature, had not entered the stream of commerce, or only indirectly affected interstate commerce. In 1937 the Court reversed its position and began to uphold New Deal legislation. By 1942, when Wickard was decided, the Court seemed willing to allow almost any economic activity to be regulated by Congress, no matter how local and insignificant.
This case dealt with the Second Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. This legislation was passed in an effort to stabilize agricultural prices. There was a regular problem of either overproduction or underproduction, leading to highly erratic pricing. The legislation allowed the secretary of agriculture to set production quotas for particular grains and farmers. Roscoe Filburn, an Ohio farmer, was told that he could plant 11.1 acres of wheat. However, he planted 23 acres of wheat and produced 239 more bushels than he was allowed. Filburn was fined for his violation, but refused to pay. The excess wheat was used to feed his chickens and cattle, was set aside as seed for the next season, and was ground for home use. He argued that the wheat was for consumption on his farm and never offered for sale; therefore, it was beyond Congress’s regulatory powers.
Justice Robert Jackson’s decision demonstrated how Roosevelt had completely transformed the Supreme Court by 1942. The Court unanimously upheld the application of the Agricultural Adjustment Act to Filburn’s farm. The Court specifically rejected any consideration of whether Filburn’s activities had an indirect or direct effect on interstate commerce. The justices also acknowledged that Filburn’s activities may have been local in nature and not regarded as commerce. However, the Court argued that by growing his own wheat, Filburn was not buying wheat on the open market, therefore depressing prices. If many farmers violated their quotas like Filburn had, the cumulative effect would be substantial and the purpose of the legislation defeated.
The Wickard case marked the beginning of a period when the Supreme Court appeared to acquiesce to almost any congressional claim to regulate activity pursuant to its Commerce Clause power.
Lee Epstein and Thomas G. Walker, Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Institutional Powers and Constraints, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press. 2001); and Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).