Wickard v. Filburn (1942)


Wickard v. Filburn was a landmark Supreme Court of the United States case that was decided in 1942. This case pertained to the constitutional question of whether the United States Government had the authority to A) regulate production of agricultural goods if those goods were intended for personal consumption and B) whether the Federal Government had the authority to regulate trivial intrastate economic activities even if the goods and/or services were not intended for interstate commerce. The case came to fruition when Roscoe Filburn grew more agricultural goods on his farm than the government allowed. After suing the government, Filburn won the case after proving that the fine was a deprivation of his property without due process of law. Afterwards, Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard appealed the decision, and eventually had the lower court’s decision overturned on the grounds the government did, in fact, have the authority to regulate agriculture for personal use as well as trivial intrastate commerce, based on the idea that it had a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

This is a landmark decision due to the fact that prior to 1937, most questions concerning the Federal Government’s authority to regulate production was struck down by the Supreme Court. For instance, Hammer V. Daggenhart (1918) posed the Constitutional question of whether Congress had the authority to prevent goods from entering interstate commerce because they were produced by children. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not have the authority to intervene with any form of production. Court cases like Hammer V. Daggenhart (1918) was the law of the land up until 1937, where there was a massive paradigm shift in Federal regulatory policy. Wickard v. Filburn was one of the earliest landmark decisions after the Supreme Court altered its interpretation of the Commerce Clause. In sum, Wickard V. Filburn was a monumental Supreme Court decision that contradicted almost every regulatory-based question up until that point- from there, anything that pertained to the Federal government regulation of production, would be upheld.

Case Timeline


Wickard v Filburn was a case brought to the United States Supreme Court that drastically increased the amount of economic regulatory power the United States government employed. Towards the conclusion of  the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 which purposely decreased production in the agricultural sector by paying subsidies to farmers that did NOT plant on parts of their land. As well as the subsidies, the United States urged farmers to kill any excess livestock they may have.

This economic policy was established in order to limit the factors of production that would ultimately reduce the amount of grain in the market, which, at the time was a surplus.  These regulatory actions would, in turn, raise the value of crops. In layman’s terms, there was a great amount of overproduction within the agricultural industry thus it had driven down the price of items like; wheat, cotton, corn, rice, tobacco and milk- just to name a few (this list later expanded in 1934 and 1935). Regardless, it was the Roosevelt Administration’s understanding that the prices of such agricultural products greatly influenced the cost and price of final goods within the market. There was already a surplus of these items within the market and there was a great amount of processing by manufacturers and production plants before these final goods could be used for human consumption.
Fast forward to 1938; the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was found to be unconstitutional and therefore updated with an act of the same name, yet revised and updated to current times. This new act provided an alternative and replacement for the subsidies discussed in the above context. The new provisions included price regulation in order to maintain an adequate supply of grain products in a period of low production. These regulations also included marketing quotas in order to align supply and demand within the market, which is where Wickard v. Filburn begins to take shape.

Procedural History

In 1940, Roscoe Filburn planted 23 acres of wheat which was to be used for personal consumption. Personal consumption for Filburn consisted of; feed for his livestock, grain products for his family and seed for future growing seasons. Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, the 23 acres of fertile soil that Filburn was able to farm wheat on, was reduced to 11 acres. The Agricultural Adjustment Act also stated that Filburn could only harvest 20 bushels of wheat per acre (equating to around 220 bushels out of his 11 acres). In July of 1941, Filburn harvested wheat from all 23 acres of land instead of the government mandated 11 acres. The extra acreage ended up yielding an extra 239 bushels of wheat. Filburn was fined $0.49 per bushel which equates to $7.84 in total 1941. (If you adjust that number for inflation it would be roughly $127 today).

After Filburn refused to pay the fine he filed suit in the Federal District Court, stating that the penalty of $.49 violated his due process under law. At one point, the monetary amount of the fine came under dispute after there was a $.34 increase in the fine in May, which was many weeks after Filburn’s crop was initially planned. The District Court ruled in Roscoe Filburn’s favor and limited the fine to $.15 per bushel. However, Claude Wickard, the Secretary of Agriculture, appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court based on two constitutional questions.


There were two main constitutional issues in Wickard v. Filburn that were addressed by the Court. The issues were raised because Filburn grew more wheat than what was allowed by the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 (AAA). The AAA regulates control of the volume and flow of crops in both interstate and foreign trade, with the aims of avoiding surpluses and shortages, as well as preventing any obstruction to commerce. Filburn believed that Congress – even under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution – did not have a right to exercise their power to regulate the production and consumption of his homegrown wheat. Also, the Supreme Court wanted to clarify the extent of  Congress’s power on intrastate activities.

The first constitutional issue was whether Congress was in their right to regulate wheat that was intended for personal use, and that was not going to be placed in interstate commerce. In other words, this issue raised the question of whether Congress could tell citizens how many crops they could grow, even if the crops were only for personal consumption or utilization, and it did not directly affect interstate commerce.

The second constitutional issue questioned if Congress should have the ability to regulate trivial intrastate activities if the activities are deemed to have an aggregate effect on interstate commerce indirectly. That is to say, could activities that were within the boundaries of a state, and without a direct impact on interstate commerce, still be subject to Federal Congress regulation?


The decision of Wickard V. Filburn was unanimous and each justice ruled that, under the Commerce Clause, Congress does have the power to regulate the production of wheat intended for personal use and not placed on interstate commerce and that Congress can regulate local intrastate activities that have an substantial effect on interstate commerce by using the Commerce power.

Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court held, in regards to the first constitutional issue raised, that even though the wheat may have only been used for personal consumption, it still is competing with wheat in commerce, because the demand for wheat is being taken away by the one who is growing it. Because Filburn was producing wheat for his own consumption, he in turn, did not have to purchase wheat, which affects the demand for wheat on a microeconomic level. The court reviewed the aggregate effect of Filburn’s production and debated the outcome of what would hypothetically happen if all citizens decided to grow wheat for personal consumption. If each person decided to grow their own wheat for personal consumption it would in return have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The Supreme court acknowledged that one single farmer may not substantially affect interstate commerce but when viewed in the aggregate of all citizens, in a similar circumstance it would most likely significantly affect the value of wheat in commerce and have a devastating affect on the wheat market. Justice Jackson stated in his opinion that:

 “It is well established by decisions of this Court that the power to regulate commerce includes the power to regulate the prices at which commodities in that commerce are dealt in and practices affecting such prices. One of the primary purposes of the Act in question was to increase the market price of wheat, and, to that end, to limit the volume thereof that could affect the market. It can hardly be denied that a factor of such volume and variability as home-consumed wheat would have a substantial influence on price and market conditions. This may arise because being in marketable condition such wheat overhangs the market, and, if induced by rising prices, tends to flow into the market and check price increases. But if we assume that it is never marketed, it supplies a need of the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open market. Home-grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce. The stimulation of commerce is a use of the regulatory function quite as definitely as prohibitions or restrictions thereon. This record leaves us in no doubt that Congress may properly have considered that wheat consumed on the farm where grown, if wholly outside the scheme of regulation, would have a substantial effect in defeating and obstructing its purpose to stimulate trade therein at increased prices.” (Wickard v. Filburn. Supreme Court of the United States)

The Supreme Court also affirmed the second Constitutional issue in this case and declared that Congress can regulate trivial local, intrastate activities that have an aggregate effect on interstate commerce by using the commerce power. The court held that Congress has the power to regulate any intrastate activity that has an aggregate effect on interstate commerce because it is essential to maintaining a steady and fair market as part of our capitalist society. Justice Jackson delivered the opinion of the court and stated that:

“The commerce power is not confined in its exercise to the regulation of commerce among the states. It extends to those activities intrastate which so affect interstate commerce, or the exertion of the power of Congress over it, as to make regulation of them appropriate means to the attainment of a legitimate end, the effective execution of the granted power to regulate interstate commerce. . . . The power of Congress over interstate commerce is plenary and complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution. . . . It follows that no form of state activity can constitutionally thwart the regulatory power granted by the commerce clause to Congress. Hence, the reach of that power extends to those intrastate activities which in a substantial way interfere with or obstruct the exercise of the granted power.” (Wickard v. Filburn. Supreme Court of the United States)

The Supreme Court agreed that Filburn’s personal use of wheat interfered with the national wheat market and decided that Congress has the right to regulate this by using the commerce power granted to them.

Separate Opinions

The decision of Wickard v. Filburn was unanimous and there were no separate opinions.


After the justices had reached a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court increased the federal government’s power to regulate the economy. As the Filburn Foundation states, “The U.S. Supreme Court found the Commerce Clause can apply to local, non-commercial activity that might affect interstate commerce and has the authority to regulate private economic activity.” The Court found it necessary that the government should impose quotas on farmers who grow their wheat for their personal consumption, under the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

This ruling led the federal government to have power in decisions regarding individual activities that could indirectly affect interstate commerce. The Federal Government would not only be within their right to regulate an individual’s crop growing, but could also regulate any other activities that affected interstate commerce in any way. This represented a widening of the scope of the commerce clause.

According to scholars, Wickard v. Filburn has had a significant impact on recent cases. Recent cases such as Gonzales v. Raich,  National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, and Florida v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, have used Wickard v. Filburn as a precedent to support their claims.

In Gonzales v Raich (2005), Judge Thomas expressed concern about the powers of the Federal Congress under the Commerce Clause. In his dissent, he stated:

“Marijuana has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has no demonstrable effect on the national market, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers”

With regards to the other cases – National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, and Florida v. United States Department of Health and Human Services – Wickard was the center of the argument regarding the constitutionality of the ObamaCare Act.  The Legal Information Institute mentions that under Wickard  Congress had the power to regulate the market for wheat by supporting its price, but the price can be sustained by increasing demand as well as by reducing supply. The summed decisions of some buyers not to obtain wheat have a substantial effect on the price of wheat, just as decisions not to purchase health insurance have on the price of insurance.  Therefore, Congress can command those who do not buy wheat to do so,  and command those who do not wish to buy health insurance to buy it. The Legal Information Institute highlighted the potential implications of Wickard v. Filburn with brevity:

 “Applying the Government’s logic to the familiar case of Wickard v. Filburn shows how far that logic would carry us from the notion of a government of limited powers. “

Text of Case Opinions

Majority Opinion (Jackson)

External Resource Links

Chen, James Ming, The Story of Wickard v. Filburn: Agriculture, Aggregation, and Commerce (September 15, 2008). CONSTITUTIONAL LAW STORIES, Michael C. Dorf, ed., 2d ed., Foundation Press, 2008; University of Louisville School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2008-40. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1268162

  • This provided our group with an incredibly thorough and detailed understanding of the history of Wickard V. Filburn

Kestenbaum, David. “The Farmer And The Commerce Clause.” NPR. NPR, 05 July 2012. Web. 08 Nov. 2015. <http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/07/05/156232075/the-farmer-and-the-commerce-clause>.

  • A very short NPR summary about the commerce clause and the events that lead up to the case, as well as the case itself

Mcbride, A. (2007). Landmark Cases. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/capitalism/landmark_swift.html

  • This was used to help us get a good understanding of the Swift & Co v. United States case

“Roscoe Filburn’s Farm.” Roscoe Filburn’s Farm. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2015. <http://www.thefilburnfoundation.com/filburnsfarm.html>.

  • This provided us with a very short history from the Filburn Foundation’s website about the events that took place leading up to the monumental Supreme Court decision

Vile, John R., and Joseph F. Menez. “Chapter 1.” Essential Supreme Court Decisions: Summaries of Leading Cases in U.S. Constitutional Law. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. 14-15. Print.

  • Essential Supreme Court Decisions was able to provide a brief and factual summary of the; facts of the case, Constitutional question(s), the decision of the Supreme Court, as well as the Supreme Court reasoning

Wickard V. Filburn. Supreme Court of the United States. 9 Nov. 1942. LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2015. <https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/317/111>.

  • This provided our group with a more thorough background of the events and precedents, leading up to the Supreme Court case. It also gave the opinion of the court, conducted by Justice J. Jackson

“Wickard v. Filburn – Case Brief Summary.” Lawnix Free Case Briefs RSS. Lawnix.com, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2015. <http://www.lawnix.com/cases/wickard-filburn.html>.

  • A short summary of facts, issues, and holdings/rulings that pertained to Wickard V. Filburn

Major Statue Under Review

Agricultural Adjustment Act

Important Precedents

United States v. E.C. Knight Company (1895)

Swift & Company v. United States (1905)

United States v. Darby Lumber Company (1941)

Important Subsequent Cases

United States v Lopez (1995)

Gonzales v Raich (2005)

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