United States v . Lopez (1995)


United States v. Lopez was a landmark Supreme Court case that concerned the degree to which Congress could utilize the substantial effects doctrine under the Commerce Clause. The case concerned Alfonso Lopez Jr., a student who brought a gun to his high school. He was arrested and charged under the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The Court affirmed the decision of the Fifth Circuit, holding that the statute exceeded the authority of Congress under the Commerce Clause, as bringing a firearm to school does not have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The case marked the end of a long period of the Court broadly interpreting Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce based on the substantial effects doctrine.

Timeline 1


Alfonso Lopez, Jr., was a 12th-grade student at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas. On March 10, 1992, he was arrested in school for carrying a concealed, unloaded .38 caliber revolver and five cartridges. Lopez claimed that he was delivering the gun to someone else for $40. A rumor tipped off school authorities, Lopez was confronted, and he admitted to the possession of the gun. He was immediately charged under Texas state law for possessing a firearm on school property.  The next day, the state charges were dropped and Lopez was charged for violating the Federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, section 922(q)(2)(A). This law forbids “any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.”

Procedural History

In district court, Lopez filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that section 922(q)(2)(A) was unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress’ power to legislate rules for public schools. The district court denied the motion. Lopez waived his right to a jury trial and the court conducted a bench trial and convicted him. Lopez appealed.  The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the District Court’s conviction and the United Supreme Court granted certiorari.


1. Does the Gun Free School Zone Act exceed Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause?

2. What categories of activity may Congress regulate under its commerce power?


In a 5-4 vote the Court found that the Guns Free School Zone Act was unconstitutional, and upheld the Court of Appeals decision consequently overturned Lopez’s conviction. The Court rejected the Federal Government’s claim that crime in schools substantially affected interstate commerce, holding that carrying handguns or crime in schools were not economic enterprise. Chief Justice Rehnquist authored the majority opinion identifying the three broad categories of activity that Congress could regulate under the Commerce Clause:

  1. The channels of interstate commerce
  2. The instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce
  3. Activities that substantially affect or substantially relate to interstate commerce.

The overall disposition of the majority was that the Court must not allow Congress’ enumerated powers to “…presuppose something not enumerated, and that there never will be a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local.”

MAJORITY VOTE: Rehnquist, O’Conner, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas.

DISSENT: Breyer, Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg.

Majority Opinion (Rehnquist)

Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority, joined by O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas. The court held that the Gun-Free School Zones act of 1990 “[..] exceeds the authority of Congress ‘[to] regulate Commerce … among the several States ….’”.  The Court acknowledged that the Commerce Clause grants Congress the power to regulate “three broad categories of activity”, and stated that if the act were to stand, it must be under the power of Congress to regulate activities which substantially affect commerce. The Court reviews the long history of the court upholding congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate economic activity, while emphasizing that even the most expansive of these past decision does not approach the degree of removal from economic activity of bringing a gun into a school zone.

In response to this, Rehnquist notes that “[the act] is a criminal statute that by its terms has nothing to do with ‘commerce’ or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define those terms”. The Court recognized that the Commerce Clause grants Congress the authority to regulate aspects of interstate commerce that also affect the education system, however they thought extending this authority to the issue under review in U.S. v. Lopez would “convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the States”. The majority found this to be an unacceptable expansion of Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause.

Concurring Opinion (Kennedy)

Justice Kennedy, joined by O’Connor, briefly reviews the history of conflict shrouding the commerce clause, siting previous landmark cases- such as Gibbons v. Ogden, United States v. E. C. Knight Co, etc., and goes on to state the primary two lessons that are to be learned from the historical and contemporary analysis of the commerce clause. They are that (I) that the boundaries between what is “commerce” and what is “manufacture” are vague and ambiguous at the best of times, and (II) the stability of the commerce clause jurisprudence is vital to the perseverance and sustainability of the Federal and State balance, as prescribed within the Constitution. Justice Kennedy goes on to clarify that although the level of Federal encroachment on the police powers of the States in United States v. Lopez is not quite as severe as its preceding attempts, nevertheless such attempts are both perilous and infectious to the balance of the Union, and thus it is the duty and right of this court to thwart such efforts, in order to safeguard the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

Concurring Opinion (Thomas)

Justice Thomas hypothesizes how the Federal government and the dissent could and have attempted to utilize the substantial effects doctrine, in order to justify Federal legislation and authority over, what has till then traditionally been, State Police powers. However, he goes on to clarify that such a notion would disembowel the entire system of Federalism, and would be akin to a dictatorship by the national branch over the state branches. The Federal government would have free reign to monitor anything and everything under the guise of national economic stability, be it agriculture or healthcare, and therefore it is the duty and right of this court to impede such efforts and interpretations, and staying true to the Constitution, deny the Federal branch any part of the State police powers.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer)

Justice Breyer, joined by Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, states that in his view “the statute falls well within the scope of the commerce power as this Court has understood that power over the last half century”. He cites Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) and Wickard v. Filburn (1942) as precedent for granting Congress the authority to regulate local activity if said activity has a substantial effect on interstate commerce. He states that Congress has a “rational basis” for determining that possessing a firearm has a substantial effect on interstate commerce through its effect on education, and thus the statute should be upheld under the authority of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.

Dissenting Opinion (Stevens)

In his dissent Justice Stevens states that firearms can have a dampening effect on the ability to practice commerce. Because of their negative effects, Stevens believes that Congress has the power to prohibit their possession “at any location”.

Dissenting Opinion (Souter)

Souter thought the majority created an overly narrow definition of economic activity, which put excessive restrictions on the ability of the legislature to exercise their authority under the Commerce Clause.

Full Text of Opinions

Significance / Impact

The case marked a substantial change in direction for the Court’s interpretation of Congress’ power, ending an expansion of powers under the Commerce Clause that began with Wickard v. Filburn (1942). The Court has subsequently continued with a more narrow intrepretation of Commerce Clause power and the substantial effects doctrine with United States v. Morrison (2000) and National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012).


Timeline 2

Constitutional Provisions

In Article I, section 8, clause 3, the Commerce Clause gives all power to Congress to regulate and control commerce within the states, foreign nations, and also with the Indian tribes. The Commerce Power is an enumerated power that gives Congress the express authority to regulate commerce, while at the same time, limiting state authority within its own borders. “In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause when it passed a law prohibiting gun possession in local school zones.”

Major Statute(s) Under Review

1. Commerce Clause-  United States Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3)

2. Gun-Free School Zones Act (Crime Control Act of 1990)  United States Constitution Article 18, Section 921, Amendment 25

Important Precedents

Primary precedents

  1. Wickard v. Filburn (1942)
  2. Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)
  3. Marbury v. Madison (1803)
  4. Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
  5.  A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935)
  6. NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp (1937)
  7. Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964)

Secondary Precedents

  1. United States v. Darby Lumber Company (1941)
  2. United States v. Bass (1971)
  3. Fullilove v. Klutznick (1980)
  4. United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895)
  5. Cohens v. Virginia (1821)
  6. United States v. Wrightwood Dairy Co. (1942)
  7. North American Co. v. SEC (1946)

Important Subsequent Cases

United States v. Morrison (2000)

Gonzalez v. Raich (2005)

National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012)

Web Resources

United States v. Lopez. 514 U.S. 549. United States Supreme Court. 26 Apr. 1995. Justia. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2016. <https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/514/549/>.

  • Provides full text of syllabus and opinions, as well as annotated holdings, facts and opinions.

McBride, Alex. “United States v. Lopez.” PBS. PBS, Dec. 2006. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/future/landmark_us.html>.

  • Provides a broad overview of the case history, ruling, and impact of the decision

“United States v. Lopez.” Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. April 29, 2016. <https://www.oyez.org/cases/1994/93-1260>.

  • Provides full audio and transcripts of oral arguments and opinion announcements.

Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Gillette, Lisa Y. “Lawyers, Guns, and Commerce: United States v. Lopez and the New Commerce Clause Doctrine.” DePaul University Library. DePaul University, 1997. April 27. 2016.

Oliver, Willard M., and David E. Barlow. “Following the Leader? Presidential Influence Over Congress in the Passage of Federal Crime Control Policy” Criminal Justice Policy Review (2005) 16 (3): 267-286. April 27. 2016.

SCOCAL, People v. Lopez , 55 Cal. 4th 569; 286 P.3d 469; 147 Cal. Rptr. 3d 559; 12 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 11,608; 2012 Daily Journal D.A.R. 14,153. April 27. 2016.

Smith, Rachel Elizabeth. “United States v. Lopez: Reaffirming the Federal Commerce Power and Remembering Federalism.” Catholic University Law Review. Catholic University, 1996. 28 April. 2016.


Elizabeth Ewing, Colandra Norwood, Luke Borsare, and Faiyaz Chowdhury (Spring 2016).