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Federalism, School Safety, and Congress: Case Background & Amendments

Case Background

In United States v. Alfonso Lopez, the Supreme Court was asked to decide an issue of federalism. Basically the Court was asked to decide whether the federal government or the state and local governments should regulate guns on school grounds. If the Court found that Congress (the federal government) did not have the power under the commerce clause to enact the statute regulating guns, it would be the first time in more than 50 years that the Court declared unconstitutional a congressional law as being outside the powers granted by the commerce clause.

The constitutional history of the relationship of the federal government to the states for the last 50 years has been one which has seen an increase of powers given to the national government and a decrease in the protection afforded the states under the Tenth Amendment. The Lopez case may prove to be an important addition to the history of federalism.

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Commerce Clause

Article I, Section 8, clause 3 of the Constitution states: "[Congress shall have the power] To regulate commerce with the foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes."

The whole debate about the power of commerce turns on what is meant by the word commerce. If commerce means anything that affects the economy, then there is virtually no limit on congressional power. If, however, commerce means business transactions, such as contracts made by individuals in two different states, then the power of Congress is much more limited. Chief Justice John Marshall and the Supreme Court in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 WHEAT 1, 6 L. Ed. 23 (1824), started the debate with an expansive definition of powers. By the time Congress started to regulate economic activities following the growth of industry in the latter half of the 19th century, a different group of justices was on the Supreme Court. They held a different philosophy of the role of government. Up until the end of the 1930s, the Supreme Court defined commerce narrowly.

However, by 1940, the President was able to appoint justices to the court who believed in an activist role for the national government. They defined commerce broadly. In recent years, Congress has become increasingly willing to use its authority under the commerce clause to expand its power. In fact, until Lopez, there were few, if any, limits upon the type of problem Congress addressed under the commerce clause.

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Tenth Amendment

The Tenth Amendment was added to the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights to give the states some protection from growing national powers. It reads:
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.
The language basically recognizes the role of the states as the primary lawmakers. Criminal law, for example, has historically been a matter of state concern. Up until the 1960s, virtually all crimes were defined and regulated by state law. The Tenth Amendment has been interpreted in recent times not as a limitation upon Congress, but as a recognition of the right of the states to make laws when not preempted by congressional activity. Over the last 30 years, Congress has entered many criminal law areas with little or no concern about possible Tenth Amendment violations.

There were times in our constitutional history when the Supreme Court treated the Tenth Amendment differently. Up until the 1930s, the Court ruled that there were some definite areas that were reserved to the states with which Congress could not interfere. Some constitutional scholars and political leaders advocate a return to this position. The courts in Lopez may have given these advocates encouragement. However, the appellate court ruled primarily that Congress exceeded its powers under the commerce clause. It did not conclude that Congress had breached limits found in the Tenth Amendment.

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Second Amendment

Although the Lopez case involved the regulation of firearms by Congress, the appellate court did not base its decision upon the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment of the Constitution reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Courts have generally ruled that laws regulating weapon use are not prohibited by the Second Amendment. All states have laws regulating gun usage.

Since 1934, Congress has passed laws regulating the sale and manufacture of weapons under its power to regulate commerce. These laws prescribe criminal penalties for violations. Congress has also passed laws creating federal offenses for crimes that involved interstate activities and travel over state lines. Penalties exist for using weapons in these federal offenses.

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