United States v. Lopez 514 U.S. 549 (1995) Supreme Court of the United States

April 26, 1995
United States , petitioner
Lopez, Jr. , respondent, concealed firearm in high school

Procedural History

Respondent Alfonso Lopez, Jr. was arrested and charged under Texan law with firearm possession on school premises.  The next day, the state charges were dismissed after federal agents charged respondent by complaint for violation of the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990.  Following indictment by a federal grand jury, respondent moved to dismiss the indictment, but the motion was denied by the District Court.  Responded was convicted for violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(q) after a bench trial.  Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the ruling of the trial court.  Petitioner filed before the United States Supreme Court a writ of certiorari which was granted.


12-year old Alfonso Lopez, Jr. entered Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas concealing a .38 caliber handgun with five bullets.  An anonymous tip alerted the school authorities, who confronted respondent.  Upon admission, respondent was arrested and charged for firearm possession in school, which was dismissed after federal agents charged respondent for violation of the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 ( HYPERLINK httpwww.law.cornell.edusupct-cgiget-usc-cite18922.html 18 U.S.C.  922(q)(1)(A)).  In this Act, Congress deemed punishable 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.

Respondent Lopez, Jr. was convicted on said Act and sentenced to six months imprisonment and 2 months supervised release.  The conviction was appealed to the Court of the Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, claiming that 922(q) of the Act was unconstitutional as it exceeded Congress power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.  Under the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, Congress is empowered to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes (U.S. Const., Art. I, 8, cl. 3).  The appellate court agreed to the contention and subsequently reversed the order.  Hence petitioner appealed to the United States Supreme Court in the form of a writ of certiorari which the High Court granted.


Whether or not possession of firearms in school premises, as enumerated in  HYPERLINK httpwww.law.cornell.edusupct-cgiget-usc-cite18922.html 18 U.S.C.  922(q)(1)(A), also known as the Gun Free School Zone Act, renders said Act unconstitutional for exceeding Congress power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.


The United States Supreme Court declared  HYPERLINK httpwww.law.cornell.edusupct-cgiget-usc-cite18922.html 18 U.S.C.  922(q)(1)(A) as unconstitutional, and affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in reversing the conviction of respondent.

The reason behind the affirmation by the High Court is hinged on the review of past precedents of intrastate commercial activities subject to regulation by Congress.  First, the possession of a gun in a local secondary school cannot be considered an economic activity that might substantially affect interstate commerce.  Section 922(q) is a criminal statute that in no way involves any form of economic enterprise, however broadly those terms are defined.  Nor is it essential to a larger regulation of economic activity, in which the regulatory scheme could be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated.  Second, 922(q) contains no jurisdictional element that would ensure, through case-by-case inquiry, that the firearms possession in question has the requisite nexus with interstate commerce.  Respondent was a local student at a local school there is no indication that he had recently moved in interstate commerce, and there is no requirement that his possession of the firearm have any concrete tie to interstate commerce.

As to the argument by the Government that Congress acquired institutional expertise on previous enactments of firearm regulation, the Court agrees with the appellate court that such findings to justify  922(q) is inappropriate because the prior federal enactments are unrelated to the subject matter of  922(q).  Also untenable is the Governments contention that possessions of firearms would substantially affect interstate commerce through the costs of crime brought about by the mechanisms of insurance, and threatens the educational process, leading to a less productive citizenry.  The Court reasons that costs of crime and national productivity reasoning, if accepted by the Court, will render any activity subject to regulation by Congress.


Rule of Law

The congressional power under the Commerce Clause, although there are no precise formulations, holds true to the principle of enumerated powers, meaning that what is enumerated presupposes something not enumerated.  Hence, there is no clear distinction to what is national and what is local.

Other Opinions

Kennedy, A, joined by OConnor, S., concurs, adding that regulation by Congress under the Commercial Clause must not intrude into state sovereignty, unless there is a stronger connection or identification with commercial concerns that are central to the Commercial Clause.

Thomas, C. concurs, but insists that there must be a standard in applying the substantial effects test that reflects the original wording of the Commerce Clause.

Stevens, J. dissents, adding that national interest justified federal regulation of possession of handguns
Breyer, S., dissents citing that Congress ... could rationally conclude that schools fall on the commercial side of the line.

Souter, D. dissents, adding a caveat that the distinction between commercial and non-commercial activity was not tenable.

Federal Courts Jurisdiction based on United States v. Lopez

There are two kinds of court systems in the United States state and federal.  Both have a hierarchical structure of jurisdiction.  Federal courts are courts of the federal, applying the federal law, with the power to test the constitutionality of state law, and adjudicate controversies arising between residents of two or more states (Adler, Mueller  Laufer, 2009).  Federal courts are often called the guardians of the Constitution because their rulings protect rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution (U.S. Courts, 2009). Generally, cases are filed for the first time in lesser courts, while decided cases are filed before the higher courts for review.  This jurisdiction held by lesser courts is known as original jurisdiction as opposed to the appellate jurisdiction that empowers the higher courts.  Taking the case of United States v. Lopez into consideration, the jurisdiction of federal courts of the United States are as follows

United States District Courts

District courts are trial courts in the federal and some state systems (Adler, Mueller  Laufer, 2009).  They have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matter (U.S, Courts, 2010).  Ninety-four federal district courts exist throughout the country, with the inclusion of Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianas, and Puerto Rico.  Each state is allotted one district court, except in populous states.

United States Circuit Courts of Appeal

Circuit courts of appeal are appellate courts of the federal system with the power to review judgments of federal district courts, also known as appellate jurisdiction (Adler, Mueller  Laufer, 2009).  There are thirteen such courts, with one in every eleven districts.  They also have nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims (U.S. Courts, 2010).

United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is a federal court that has the ultimate authority in interpreting the Constitution as it applies to federal and state law the final authority in federal law.  It represents the highest echelon of the third branch of government, the judiciary (Adler, Mueller  Laufer, 2009).  The members comprise the Chief Justice and eight associate justices, and appointments are made by the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Each year, the Supreme Court hears a limited number of cases it is asked to decide.  Such cases may have originated in the federal or state courts, with important questions about the Constitution or federal law (U.S. Courts, 2010).  Cases elevated to the Supreme Court are usually in the form of writs, specifically the writ of certiorari.  Writs of certioraris are writs alleging grave abuse of discretion or in excess of authority on the part of the deciding court or tribunal.


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