JUSTICE FISCHER, dissenting.The US Congress passed the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 (Law) on October 27, 1990 and it was signed into law by President George HW Bush on November 29,1990. Section 922(q)(2)(A) of the Law made it unlawful for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone. The Law was made under the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, which allows the federal government to regulate interstate commerce among the States.
The Facts and Procedural History of the Case: On March 10, 1992, the Defendant, Alfonso Lopez. Jr., a senior at Edison High School in San Antonia, Texas, was caught by school officials carrying a concealed .38 caliber handgun and five bullets on school grounds, as a result of an anonymous tip. Lopez was originally arrested under a Texas criminal law prohibiting firearm possession on school property. The next day the Texas state charges were dismissed after federal law enforcement charged Lopez with violating federal law under the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990.
At the trial, he argued that the law was not constitutional because the United States Congress was not allowed to control public schools under the Commerce Clause. He was found guilty of violating the Law by a Federal District Court judge. There was no jury. Lopez was sentenced to six months in prison and two years supervised release.Lopez appealed his conviction to the United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 5Th Circuit Court hears appeals certain federal district courts located in the States of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The 5th Circuit Court ruled for Lopez and overruled the district court decision. The 5th Circuit decision said its decision was based on its review of the Law’s history. The court said Congress did not make any Congressional findings showing a relationship between the Law and interstate commerce and the government also did not show any relationship between the law and interstate commerce. The Court said Both the management of education, and the general control of simple firearms possession by ordinary citizens, have traditionally been a state responsibility and section 922(q) indisputably represents a singular incursion by the Federal Government into territory long occupied by the States. In such a situation where we are faced with competing constitutional concerns, the importance of Congressional findings is surely enhanced. The Federal Government appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the appeal. On a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lopez and against the Federal Government.How is the Case an Issue of Federalism?:The United States Constitution divides the power between the States and the Federal Government. It balances power between the States and the Federal Government. The Founding Fathers of the United States wrote a Constitution that limits the power of the federal Government and protects states rights. To accomplish this limitation of power, citizens were given a Bill of Rights to protect them from government actions harming their basic rights, the Federal Government was separated into three co-equal branches of government, the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial, and the Federal Government was given specific and limited powers. The powers given to the Federal Government limited the States’ Rights. The concept of Federalism is to divide the power between the States and federal Governments and limit and balance those powers. In this case, the Supreme Court is asked to decide whether the Federal Government’s power under the Constitution to regulate commerce among the States allowed the Federal Government to make the gun free school zone law. In other words, does the right to regulate commerce allow the Federal Court to enact a criminal law prohibiting the carrying of a firearm in and around a state high school? How is carrying a firearm into a local high school related to commerce? Isn’t this an activity and power reserved to the States? Majority Opinions: The majority opinions include a majority Opinion written by the Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, a concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy joined by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and a concurring Opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas. 1. The Majority Opinion:The Majority’s Opinion provides a discussion of the Commerce Clause history under previous law, precedent, and how its interpretation has changed over time. The opinion says that the Court should remember that the scope of the Interstate Commerce Clause must not be interpreted to obliterate the distinction between the what is national and what is local and create a completely centralized government. Chief Justice Rehnquist mistakenly says there are only three types of situations which can be regulated by the federal government under the Commerce Clause: (1) those that regulate the channels of commerce (highways, shipping lanes); (2) those that regulate and protect the instrumentalities of commerce (trains and airplanes), or persons or things in interstate commerce even if they are also considered intrastate activities and; (3) those that regulate activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce or substantially affect what happens in interstate commerce. Chief Justice Rehnquist decides that categories (1) and (2) are not involved in the Lopez case. The only question is whether category (3), substantially affects interstate commerce, applies to the Gun Free School Zone law. The Majority Opinion concludes that it does not. First, it says a criminal statute has nothing to do with commerce. Second, it says carrying a firearm at a local high school has no relationship to commerce at all. It does not agree with the arguments in the dissenting opinions that violence at schools can effect economic activities related to the interstate costs of crime prevention, the willingness of people to travel, threats to the learning environment causing less productive citizens, and the overall economic well being of the country because of a less educated population. The Majority Opinion concluded that to uphold the Government’s contentions here, we would have to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the StatesTo do so would require us to conclude that the Constitution’s enumeration of powers does not presuppose something not enumerated. 2. Justice Kennedy Concurring Opinion:Justice Kennedy misinterprets Federalism and the breadth of the Commerce Clause in saying that Federalism requires striking down the Law. His opinion argues that a complex national economic system requires that the Federal government have the authority to regulate commerce. But even so, he finds that regulating the carrying of a firearm in a high school under the Commerce Clause too much of a stretch of the Commerce Clause: this case requires us to consider our place in the design of the Government and to appreciate the significance of federalism in the whole structure of the Constitution. He says the Court has a duty to intervene when the federal balance between state and federal power tips too far. He concludes that under the U.S. Constitution the States are the ones that have the right to regulate education and the manner of regulating guns in schools. Justice Kennedy believes the Federal government should not be able to take this power away based upon the Commerce Clause. He believes states should be allowed to make those kind of laws and decide the criminal penalties for bringing guns on school property. 3. Justice Thomas Concurring Opinion:Justice Thomas’ Opinion argues the need to disregard prior law and instead undertake a wholesale reinterpretation of the Commerce Clause. He says the text of the Commerce Clause in the Constitution should be literally read to only include commerce and not anything affecting commerce. He says that the current interpretation of the Commerce Clause allows the Federal government to become a Police Power. The Dissenting Opinions: In addition to my dissenting opinion, three dissenting opinions are given today in the case. Justice Breyer wrote a dissent joined in by Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, and Justice Ginzburg. Justice Souter filed his own dissent as did Justice Stevens. 1. The Breyer Dissent.I entirely agree with the dissent of Justice Breyer. He correctly sees the error in the Majority’s identification of the primary question before the Court as not [being] whether the regulated activity sufficiently affected interstate commerce but rather, the question is whether Congress could have had a rational basis for so concluding. He argues that Congress knew that gun”related violence was connected to interstate commerce and that education had a positive affect on interstate business. He provides numerous Congressional studies that support the connection. He rejects the 5th Circuit Court’s requirement of written findings by Congress as a requirement for the federal courts to have jurisdiction in this matter. He also identifies prior Supreme Court cases that have upheld the connection of activities with much less connection to commerce than the connection involved in this case. He correctly finds that the Majority’s focus on the commercial versus noncommercial transactions relies on commerce clause cases that were previously held wrong by the Supreme Court. Justice Beyer correctly identifies the the issue as being whether the activity being regulated affects interstate commerce. Finally, Beyer points out that the majority decision will create legal uncertainty for Congress in making criminal laws by Congress. 2. The Souter Dissent:Justice Souter’s dissent is clear and simple: if Congress has a rational basis for its conclusion to regulate the law under the Commerce Clause, it is valid. The Court should presume that the Congress acted within its authority. As such, Congressional findings are not needed to support the Law. Justice Beyer also says the majority opinion is based on discredited Supreme Court decisions. 3. The Stevens DissentJustice Steven in his Dissent agrees with Justices Breyer and Souter Dissents and shows that Justice Thomas’ theory of commerce by looking at what commerce meant at the time the Constitution was adopted in 1789 was wrong.. This case should never have been heard by this Court. It has wasted the Court’s scarce resource of time. Much more deserving cases with truly unsettled law should have been considered instead.The judicial precedent associated with Commerce Clause interpretation has a long history and follows the changes of circumstances as the country moved from a rural based economy to an industrialized country. There cannot be any disagreement that the Commerce Clause is essential to our Federal system of government and that it guides the relationship between the powers given to the States and the Federal Government. Since 1937, this Court has deferred to the judgment of Congress on what laws should be enacted to protect the free flow of goods and people in interstate commerce. It has been settled that the laws passed by Congress are valid as long as the laws have a rational basis or relationship to interstate commerce. It is silly for this Court to overturn an Act of Congress passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President merely because the Congress did not include specific findings showing the relationship between commerce and the regulation in the legislation. As Justice Breyer showed there are substantial congressional reports and independent research demonstrating the nexus between education, guns on campus, and commerce.The majority apparently has a great need to assert itself in commerce clause cases. It is easy to see the conservative bent of the majority members as they crackdown on the federal government’s expansion of social and economic regulations. They want a return to a time of small government. However, it is the role of the Congress and the President to sort out that involvement in the exercise of their constitutional duties under the Commerce Clause. The majority is clearly engaging in judicial activism by throwing out settled law, ignoring prior Supreme Court holdings, imposing costly and unneeded fact finding by Congress, and creating uncertainty in the law. There may be a time where the Congress and the President may overstep their powers under the Commerce Clause. However, in the area of guns and education that circumstance does not reasonably exist. State law and Federal can easily coexist as it has done here. Both the State and Federal laws exist and do not have to conflict.