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United States v. Lopez

The U.S. Supreme Court case, United States versus Lopez, challenged the power of the federal government. A high school student, Alfonzo Lopez, was arrested for carrying a firearm to school, violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lopez, stating that the act was an overreach of federal power. This case marked a limit on federal power.

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  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    I apologize for engaging in cynicism here, but is it possible that if this case had been about something other than guns, the decision may have had a different outcome? I can only imagine, given the current power of the NRA, that the leaders of that organization were none to happy to see the the federal government have such broad powers over the regulation of firearms, even if it meant that the safety of school children was the focus of the law.
    (5 votes)
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Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're going to do in this video is talk about a relatively recent U.S. Supreme Court case, and this is the United States versus Lopez, and the decision was made in 1995. And this is significant because many of the cases we have talked about are things that broadened the power of the federal government. While the decision in United States versus Lopez, which was a split decision, it was a five-to-four decision, put some limits on federal power. And so just to understand what happened. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passes the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. And it says, "It shall be 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." And in 1992, a high school student in San Antonio, Texas, Alfonzo Lopez, carries a concealed firearm into his high school. He is arrested, and then he is eventually prosecuted under the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, a federal law. And he is tried in a federal court. His lawyers say, "Hey, this is unconstitutional. "The federal government does not have "the right to regulate whether someone "carries a gun into a school or not." While the federal government says, "Hey, yes we can do this because "look at the United States Constitution. "We, the federal government, have a right "to regulate interstate trade." And remember what McCullouch versus Maryland told us. From the necessary and proper clause, anything that is a means to regulate, say, another enumerated power, like the power to regulate interstate trade, that is also constitutional for the federal government. But then, you could imagine, Lopez's lawyers said, "Hold on a second, that is a very tenuous connection. "If you're trying to connect the notion "of firearms in schools and school safety, "to interstate commerce, well you could connect "almost anything to interstate commerce, "which would mean that between the necessary "and proper clause, the implied powers "and the enumerated powers of regulated interstate commerce, "well then the federal government "could just regulate anything." And so it eventually gets appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. And in a split five-to-four decision, the United States Supreme Court decides in favor of Lopez, that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, at least as it was originally written, was indeed unconstitutional, that it's an overreach of federal power. And to appreciate the majority's thinking, here's an excerpt of the decision by William Rehnquist who was the Chief Justice and who was in the majority and he wrote, "To uphold the government's contentions here," the contention that the government is making that it is constitutional to regulate the possession of firearms in a school, "we 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 states." So Rehnquist is saying, "Hey look, if we say "that the regulation of firearms is connected "to interstate commerce somehow, "because it somehow affects the economy between states. "Well then almost anything, if you layer "pile inference upon inference, then that would "give the right to the federal government "to police almost anything, a type of police power "that's generally retained by the states." "Admittedly, some of our prior cases have "taken long steps down that road, "giving great deference to congressional action." And you could go all the way back to McCulloch versus Maryland. He's saying, "Yeah, the Supreme Court has ruled "many times in favor of the federal government, "having a broad understanding of implied powers." "The broad language in these opinions "has suggested the possibility of additional expansion, "but we decline here to proceed any further." So they're drawing the line in this decision on the expansion of congressional power. "To do so would require us to conclude "that the Constitution's enumeration of powers "does not presuppose something not enumerated, "and that there never will be a distinction "between what is truly national and what is truly local. "This we are unwilling to do." So he's saying, "Hey look, if we took "the government's side on this, there's no end. "There really isn't anything that the federal government "can't do, and then there won't be a distinction "between what is truly national and what is truly local." I'll let you decide, but it's a fascinating case, and it's really important in this discussion on power between states and the federal government because this was a decision that kind of drew a line and said, "Okay, we can't let the federal government "have an unlimited number of powers "based on just being able to tie inference upon inference "to something like the Commerce Clause."