Bad Law Sixty Years Later

”Congress shall have the power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” — Article I, US Constitution.

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” — Amendment X, US Constitution.

In 1941,Claude Filburn,a farmer in Montgomery County, Ohio sowed 23 acres of wheat. This acreage exceeded his 11.9 acre allotment under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. However, Filburn never intended his crop for commerce, interstate or otherwise. The wheat was consumed on his farm by his family and his livestock. The Federal government fined Filburn for his deliberate, wanton, and excessive farming. Filburn challenged these fines and the case found its way to the US Supreme Court.

The US Constitution grants Congress the explicit power to regulate interstate commerce, the so-called “Commerce Clause” of Article I. Filburn’s position was that his wheat production did not represent commerce and certainly not interstate commerce. Hence, it could not be regulated by the Congress. Looking back we can understand the economic foolishness of central control of the agricultural economy, but in during the Great Depression and its aftermath, the power of the Federal government was expanded to meet economic exigencies. After a few judicious appointments to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a largely compliant Court searched for ways to justify these extensions of Federal power.

In Wickard v. Filburn, the Court ruled for the Federal government by arguing that “interstate commerce” included intrastate production and consumption. Certainly, in the Court’s view, local private consumption can have consequences on interstate commerce. Justice Robert H. Jackson, a judge recently appointed by President Roosevelt and writing for the Court in the case, argued that economic necessity “has made mechanical application of legal formulas no longer feasible” and that interstate commerce “extends to those activities intrastate which so affect interstate commerce.”

The thread of effect from farmer Filburn’s 23 acres of wheat produced and consumed entirely within a single state, within a single county, indeed on a single small private farm to interstate commerce is extremely thin. Under such an aggressively broad definition, the power to regulate interstate commerce grants the Federal government the power to regulate virtually any activity. Thus, a Constitutionally enumerated power of Congress grows into an expansive license. Jackson and Roosevelt’s Court were certainly more fecund in producing Federal power than poor farmer Filburn was in producing wheat.

The consequences of such foolish precedents tend to propagate indefinitely. Over sixty years later, California and a number of other states explicitly permitted private cultivation and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. This time, a usually Conservative President George W. Bush and his Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez sought to use the Federal government’s interstate commerce powers to prohibit such activities. Last week, the US Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Raich, again ruled for the Federal government. Pursuant to a broad interpretation of the interstate commerce clause as given in Wickard v. Filburn, the Court decided that the Federal government can prohibit the private production and use of marijuana.

The decision was 6-3, with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, William H. Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas dissenting. Unfortunately, Justice Antonin Scalia, usually a reliable adherent to an “original understanding” jurisprudence, sided with the majority. However, even Scalia’s vote would not have made a difference. Justice Thomas’s dissent was the most direct and eloquent:

The respondents “use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, 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.”

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