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The Substantial Effects Doctrine: World War II to the 1990s

15 January, 2016 - 09:29

Subsequent to NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, Congress and the courts generally accepted that even modest impacts on interstate commerce were “reachable” by federal legislation. For example, the case of Wickard v. Filburn, from 1942, represents a fairly long reach for Congress in regulating what appear to be very local economic decisions ( Wickard v. Filburn ).

Wickardestablished that “substantial effects” in interstate commerce could be very local indeed! But commerce clause challenges to federal legislation continued. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was challenged on the ground that Congress lacked the power under the commerce clause to regulate what was otherwise fairly local conduct. For example, Title II of the act prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations (such as hotels, motels, and restaurants), leading to the famous case of Katzenbach v. McClung(1964).

Ollie McClung’s barbeque place in Birmingham, Alabama, allowed “colored” people to buy takeout at the back of the restaurant but not to sit down with “white” folks inside. The US attorney sought a court order to require Ollie to serve all races and colors, but Ollie resisted on commerce clause grounds: the federal government had no business regulating a purely local establishment. Indeed, Ollie did not advertise nationally, or even regionally, and had customers only from the local area. But the court found that some 42 percent of the supplies for Ollie’s restaurant had moved in the channels of interstate commerce. This was enough to sustain federal regulation based on the commerce clause.1

For nearly thirty years following, it was widely assumed that Congress could almost always find some interstate commerce connection for any law it might pass. It thus came as something of a shock in 1995 when the Rehnquist court decided U.S. v. Lopez. Lopez had been convicted under a federal law that prohibited possession of firearms within 1,000 feet of a school. The law was part of a twenty-year trend (roughly 1970 to 1990) for senators and congressmen to pass laws that were tough on crime. Lopez’s lawyer admitted that Lopez had had a gun within 1,000 feet of a San Antonio school yard but challenged the law itself, arguing that Congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause in passing this legislation. The US government’s Solicitor General argued on behalf of the Department of Justice to the Supreme Court that Congress was within its constitutional rights under the commerce clause because education of the future workforce was the foundation for a sound economy and because guns at or near school yards detracted from students’ education. The court rejected this analysis, noting that with the government’s analysis, an interstate commerce connection could be conjured from almost anything. Lopez went free because the law itself was unconstitutional, according to the court.

Congress made no attempt to pass similar legislation after the case was decided. But in passing subsequent legislation, Congress was often careful to make a record as to why it believed it was addressing a problem that related to interstate commerce. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), having held hearings to establish why violence against women on a local level would impair interstate commerce. In 1994, while enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech), Christy Brzonkala alleged that Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, both students and varsity football players at Virginia Tech, had raped her. In 1995, Brzonkala filed a complaint against Morrison and Crawford under Virginia Tech’s sexual assault policy. After a hearing, Morrison was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to immediate suspension for two semesters. Crawford was not punished. A second hearing again found Morrison guilty. After an appeal through the university’s administrative system, Morrison’s punishment was set aside, as it was found to be “excessive.” Ultimately, Brzonkala dropped out of the university. Brzonkala then sued Morrison, Crawford, and Virginia Tech in federal district court, alleging that Morrison’s and Crawford’s attack violated 42 USC Section 13981, part of the VAWA), which provides a federal civil remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence. Morrison and Crawford moved to dismiss Brzonkala’s suit on the ground that Section 13981’s civil remedy was unconstitutional. In dismissing the complaint, the district court found that that Congress lacked authority to enact Section 13981 under either the commerce clause or the Fourteenth Amendment, which Congress had explicitly identified as the sources of federal authority for the VAWA. Ultimately, the court of appeals affirmed, as did the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that Congress lacked the authority to enact a statute under the commerce clause or the Fourteenth Amendment because the statute did not regulate an activity that substantially affected interstate commerce nor did it redress harm caused by the state. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court that “under our federal system that remedy must be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States.” Dissenting, Justice Stephen G. Breyer argued that the majority opinion “illustrates the difficulty of finding a workable judicial Commerce Clause touchstone.” Justice David H. Souter, dissenting, noted that VAWA contained a “mountain of data assembled by Congress…showing the effects of violence against women on interstate commerce.”

The absence of a workable judicial commerce clause touchstone remains. In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing marijuana for medical use. California’s law conflicted with the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which banned possession of marijuana. After the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized doctor-prescribed marijuana from a patient’s home, a group of medical marijuana users sued the DEA and US Attorney General John Ashcroft in federal district court.

The medical marijuana users argued that the CSA—which Congress passed using its constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce—exceeded Congress’s commerce clause power. The district court ruled against the group, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ruled the CSA unconstitutional because it applied to medical marijuana use solely within one state. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit relied on U.S. v. Lopez (1995) and U.S. v. Morrison (2000) to say that using medical marijuana did not “substantially affect” interstate commerce and therefore could not be regulated by Congress.

But by a 6–3 majority, the Supreme Court held that the commerce clause gave Congress authority to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana, despite state law to the contrary. Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the court’s precedents established Congress’s commerce clause power to regulate purely local activities that are part of a “class of activities” with a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The majority argued that Congress could ban local marijuana use because it was part of such a class of activities: the national marijuana market. Local use affected supply and demand in the national marijuana market, making the regulation of intrastate use “essential” to regulating the drug’s national market.

Notice how similar this reasoning is to the court’s earlier reasoning in Wickard v. Filburn Wickard v. Filburn ). In contrast, the court’s conservative wing was adamant that federal power had been exceeded. Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent in Gonzalez v. Raichstated that Raich’s local cultivation and consumption of marijuana was not “Commerce…among the several States.” Representing the “originalist” view that the Constitution should mostly mean what the Founders meant it to mean, he also said that in the early days of the republic, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could prohibit the local cultivation, possession, and consumption of marijuana.


The commerce clause is the basis on which the federal government regulates interstate economic activity. The phrase “interstate commerce” has been subject to differing interpretations by the Supreme Court over the past one hundred years. There are certain matters that are essentially local or intrastate, but the range of federal involvement in local matters is still considerable.


  1. Why would Congress have power under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to require restaurants and hotels to not discriminate against interstate travelers on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin? Suppose the Holiday Restaurant near I-80 in Des Moines, Iowa, has a sign that says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to any Muslim or person of Middle Eastern descent.” Suppose also that the restaurant is very popular locally and that only 40 percent of its patrons are travelers on I-80. Are the owners of the Holiday Restaurant in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? What would happen if the owners resisted enforcement by claiming that Title II of the act (relating to “public accommodations” such as hotels, motels, and restaurants) was unconstitutional?
  2. If the Supreme Court were to go back to the days of Hammer v. Dagenhartand rule that only goods and services involving interstate movement could be subject to federal law, what kinds of federal programs might be lacking a sound basis in the commerce clause? “Obamacare”? Medicare? Homeland security? Social Security? What other powers are granted to Congress under the Constitution to legislate for the general good of society?