Since the decision in Gibbons v. Ogden, there have been
many cases before the Court that have dealt with the Commerce Clause.
Over time, the Congress has used its commerce power to justify many
pieces of legislation that may seem only marginally related to commerce.
The Supreme Court of the United States has, at various points in
history, been more or less sympathetic to the use of the Commerce Clause
to justify congressional legislation.
Listed below are brief descriptions of some important cases that have
come before the Court that deal with the Commerce Clause. They are
listed in chronological order.
Read each summary and complete items 1-4 below:
- Discuss whether you think the Commerce Clause can be used to allow Congress to make the law or take the action in question.
- Read the decision excerpt.
- Decide whether the Court's decision has increased Congress's power or held Congress's power in check.
- Write a brief summary of any trend you notice in the
willingness of the Supreme Court of the United States to allow Congress
to use the Commerce Clause to justify new powers not explicitly granted
in the Constitution.
United States v. E.C. Knight Company (1895)
In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which made it
illegal to monopolize or restrain (or attempt to do so) interstate
commerce. On the basis of this Act, the United States filed a suit
against five sugar manufacturing companies to keep them from merging
after one firm purchased the stock of the other four (E.C. Knight Co.
was one of the four firms bought out). The American Sugar Refining
Company had gained control over 98 percent of the sugar refining
business in the United States in this way and was considered a monopoly.
Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)
In 1916, Congress passed the Federal Child Labor Act in an attempt to
reduce the abuse of child labor. The Act barred interstate shipment of
products that were made by children under the ages of 14 or that were
made by those between the age of 14 and 16 who worked more than eight
hours a day, more than six days a week, or at night.
National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937)
Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) in 1935
in an attempt to stop unfair labor practices by businesses that
affected commerce. The idea behind the law was that unfair actions by
businesses caused strikes and other actions by workers that hindered the
flow of interstate commerce. Union workers started proceedings before
the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the Jones &
Laughlin Steel Corporation, accusing the business of discouraging
employees from joining the union and firing some men because of their
union activities. The NLRB ordered the corporation to re-employ the men,
but it refused, saying that the Wagner Act was unconstitutional because
it regulated labor relations, not commerce.
United States v. Darby (1941)
In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Activities, which
banned the interstate shipment of goods produced by employees who were
paid less than a minimum wage or who had worked over 44 hours a week
without overtime pay. Fred Darby, who operated a lumber business in
Georgia, was indicted for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. A
federal district court threw out the indictment, stating that the act
was unconstitutional because the manufacturing activity in question was
not a part of interstate commerce.
Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States et al. (1964)
This suit challenged Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which
banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. A motel owner in
Atlanta, Georgia who mostly served interstate travelers refused to allow
African Americans to stay at the hotel in violation of the act. He
claimed that Congress lacked the authority under the Commerce Clause to
regulate his private business.
United States v. Lopez (1995)
In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed a crime bill that included the
Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The Act forbids "any individual
knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows . . . is a
school zone," 18 U.S.C. 922(q)(1)(A). A student named Lopez was arrested
for carrying a gun to a school in San Antonio, Texas and was charged
with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. Lopez tried to get
the case dismissed on the basis that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of
1990 violated the U.S. Constitution because Congress did not have the
power to pass such a law.