• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that a federal statute was unconstitutional because Congress had overstepped its authority to regulate interstate commerce.

In 1990 Congress passed the Gun-free School Zone ActGun-free School Zone Act, making it a federal crime to possess a gun within one thousand feet of a school. After Alfonso Lopez, Jr., a high school student in Texas, was arrested for taking a handgun to school, he was tried under federal law because the federal penalties were greater than those under state law. A federal court of appeals found that the federal statute violated the Tenth Amendment. Most observers expected the Supreme Court to reverse the judgment because the Court in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority[case]Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority[Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority] (1985) had held that the scope of federal authority to regulate commerce was a political question to be decided by the political process rather than by the Courts.Commerce clause;Lopez, United States v.[Lopez, United States v.]Tenth Amendment;Lopez, United States v.[Lopez, United States v.]

By a 5-4 vote, however, the Court upheld the ruling. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’sRehnquist, William H.;Lopez, United States v.[Lopez, United States v.] majority opinion reasoned that possession of guns near a school had noting to do with interstate commerce and that such an issue is traditionally a concern of local police power. As a principle, he wrote that Congress could regulate only “those activities that have a substantial relationship to interstate commerce.”

The Lopez decision appeared to mark a renaissance for the principle of dual sovereignty, which had largely been abandoned following Carter v. Carter Coal Co.[case]Carter v. Carter Coal Co.[Carter v. Carter Coal Co.] (1936). It was not clear how far the trend would go, but the Court in Printz v. United States[case]Printz v. United States[Printz v. United States] (1997) held that Congress had no power to force states to enforce federal regulations absent a particular constitutional authorization.

Carter v. Carter Coal Co.

Commerce, regulation of

Darby Lumber Co., United States v.

Federalism

Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority

Printz v. United States

Tenth Amendment

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